Dust and Darkness; I Find That Good (The Enemy of the World)

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It’s December 23rd, 1967. Between now and January 27th, thirteen people will die in England when a train collides with a truck that had stalled on the tracks, 380 will die in a Sicilian earthquake, and 121 will die in a pair of submarine crashes in the Mediterranean. In addition, Mike Casparak will die of liver failure fifteen days after being the first successful recipient of a human heart transplant in the United States, while Bill Masterton will die of a brain injury sustained during a National Hockey League game, and huge numbers will die in the still-continuing Vietnam War. Also the world will progress ever-closer to the eschaton, and The Enemy of the World airs. 

The Enemy of the World is first and foremost a story about dictators. This is separate from being a story about dictatorship, which is the more usual way for science fiction to do this. There are tons of Doctor Who stories about dictatorship—it’s the default shape of dystopias, after all. But The Enemy of the World is not ultimately interested in the shape of a dictatorship—indeed, a dictatorship never actually arises within its confines. It’s not even particularly interested in the conditions out of which dictatorship arises—its vision of the futuristic world of 2018 with its system of zones is never fleshed out enough to serve as social commentary upon that setting. The Enemy of the World is instead about the people at the top—the sorts of people who seek abusive power.

Its answer to this is specific to a cultural moment. Many critics have reasonably pointed out the problems involved in Patrick Troughton blacking up and putting on a funny voice to play a treacherous Mexican, and they’re right to, especially given that this is yet another David Whitaker script with what can charitably be called dodgy racial politics. But if one is going to launch some desperately tedious project to justify ignoring racism because you really like an episode of television (no doubt fobbed off as a “redemptive reading” or some similar shit), The Enemy of the World leaves you more options than most. Salamander isn’t Mexican because of some arbitrary bit of racial prejudice—he’s Mexican because Whitaker looked at the world outside his window and engaged with it. This was written in an era where Fidel Castro and Che Gueverra were current events—charismatic men offering liberation and material social progress were coming to power, and specifically coming to power in Latin America. 

The obvious thing to point out here is that a story about demonizing leftist revolutionaries is only faintly better than one that’s just blandly racist. But that’s oversimplifying Whitaker’s game here. The Doctor, after all, is consistently, at times even ludicrously skeptical of everyone’s claims against Salamander (a position that is ultimately justified by the fact that the main person making them is also fundamentally untrustworthy), which clearly positioning him as instinctively sympathetic to the sort of leftist revolutionary Salamander is modeled after. But there’s only so far you can get with this—at the end of the day, the gravity of Salamander being a megalomaniac is pretty inescapable.

Equally, this is no more a parable about the evils of communism than it is an exploration of the social conditions leading to dictatorship. Latin American revolutionaries provide a sense of texture here, but they are not the content. Neither is the oft-noted point of comparison of James Bond films, which might provide the underlying structure of the initial beach chase, but which fall by the wayside by the time the story settles into the form it takes for the bulk of its runtime. No, at the end of the day the structure governing The Enemy of the World is more classical than all of that. A story about political intrigue, betrayal, schemes, plots, and, the dead giveaway, a double who has to impersonate someone else can only really be said to have one antecedent: Shakespeare.

More specifically, we’re in the realm of Shakespeare’s histories. (An amusing move from Whitaker, who had just watched the Doctor Who historical get chucked out the window in favor of a generically structured monster story, and is now pointedly writing the one story in Season Five to completely reject this structure.) This is not an entirely faithful bit of genre fealty on Whitaker’s part—note most obviously that the impersonating double plot belongs to the comedies (although see Henry IV, Part 1 for an obvious antecedent)—but it’s remarkably close. Broadly speaking, Shakespeare’s histories have two purposes. The first is to straightforwardly carry political water for the ruling class, lionizing the direct ancestors of the ruling Tudors and demonizing those who  opposed them. This purpose we see fairly straightforwardly preserved in the already discussed demonization of leftist revolutionaries. But while the histories serve as propaganda, this is a commentary on message, not form. In terms of their dramatic function, they serve as meditations on the characteristics of leaders, whether valorous (the Henry V trilogy) or villainous (anything about a Richard).

The Enemy of the World obviously belongs to the latter category. Indeed, its most obvious point of comparison is Richard III, which similarly evinces a morbidly delighted fascination with the machinations of a conniving murderer. But there’s a key difference here—Shakespeare’s King Richard is constantly offering monologues to the audience in which he explains and justifies his actions. These are (deliberately) unpersuasive accounts, but they exist, allowing the audience insight into Richard’s self-mythology. Nothing of this sort exists for Salamander. We only occasionally see him on his own, typically acting in ways that communicate how he’s lying to people. On one occasion he gloats over the body of a man he’s just murdered, but the content of this offers nothing other than a reiteration of his ruthlessness. I’d describe him as a motiveless malignancy, but of course that phrase also describes a monologuing sociopath. Instead Salamander is left private, his motivations unremarked upon. We get no real portrait of his origins—just a trivia fact about his hometown and the knowledge that he invented something. He is not motiveless, but rather entirely occluded, his motives made impossible to discern. 

Nevertheless, similarities to Shakespeare’s Richard III abound. Most obviously, both men find success within their story by wielding a meta-awareness of what they are doing within the story. Richard is not merely a liar, but an actor who slips into whatever role is called for at a given moment, appearing to the other characters as if he is something other than what he has plainly told the audience that he is. Salamander has a similar gulf between his public and private faces, but more to the point Salamander displays a mastery of form and genre. 

Nowhere is this clearer than Salamander’s secret bunker of natural disaster causing scientists. Philip Sandifer has described this, in one of his more lucid moments, as Salamander slipping out the back door of the narrative he’s in. Certainly it’s a jarring and surprising reveal—very little has set it up, and it turns the shape of the story abruptly on its head, introducing an element that’s very different to the Shakespearean power games up to that point. Sandifer is broadly correct to read this in terms of genre-hopping, a point that’s supported by the mirroring of Salamander and the Doctor. Salamander has power because he’s able to alter the rules of his story. So we are left with the ultimately fairly obvious claim that the heart of the story hinges on the differences between its two identical genre-hopping characters. Something makes the Doctor superior to Salamander, allowing him to ultimately come out on top in their game of escalating narrative manipulations. What is it?

The obvious answer is morality, rendering the story a simple parable about good and evil. This makes additional sense in the current era of Doctor Who, with a Doctor who openly talks about fighting evil and who is consistently opposed to horrible monsters as opposed to the more ethically fraught situations into which Hartnell found himself thrust. And yet this fails utterly to work for The Enemy of the World, which is after all a story in which Whitaker is reacting against this reframing of Doctor Who as being about a puckish hero who fights monsters, typically as they lay siege to some sort of base. Whitaker’s Doctor Who had always been more morally ambivalent than this—recall that he had Hartnell only fighting the Daleks out of necessity, because he needed to recover the fluid link that he’d only lost because he was being selfish and dishonest to his companions. To say nothing of nearly smashing a man’s brains out with a rock. Even in his two Troughton stories to date, his Doctor is fundamentally not quite trustworthy, manipulating and taking advantage of Jamie in The Evil of the Daleks and spending most of The Power of the Daleks as a fundamental source of anxiety for both his companions and the audience. 

Indeed, if there is someone who has morality it is Salamander. He is, after all, feeding millions and making the world a more equitable place for the masses. It’s only because Whitaker resolutely places the camera amidst the palace intrigue instead of showing us the general public that this is obscured. Sure, there’s all the lies and murder, but if one takes seriously the idea that Salamander has ideological motivations—and the Castro/Guevera parallels really do force that—then it is he, not the Doctor, who can claim to be moral. Sure, it’s a very ends justify the means sort of ethics, but that’s still a moral position, especially when compared with “what law, who’s philosophy?” The truth is that the Doctor, in this story, is only vaguely interested in doing good. He wants to play at the beach and avoid trouble; circumstances don’t let him, and much like a Season One Hartnell story, he ends up doing good as the most expedient way to get out of the situation without actively doing bad.

But let’s not forget the question we’re answering here: why the Doctor ends up on top in his battle of narrative trickery with Salamander. And it appears that the answer is a degree of amorality. And yet in a battle of narrative games, it makes sense that this would be an advantage. All narratives, in the end, are political, expressing ideologies and worldviews. To be able to cast one off and slip into another is, as Richard III and Salamander both realize, a form of power. But each of them are in the end bound by petty concerns—their own material interests and desires. They can switch around within the terms of a single narrative, or perhaps a related cluster.

The Doctor is something else—a figure who can move within a relatively unbounded set of narratives. Not completely unbounded, certainly—at the end of the day he is still bound by the political realities of what can and can’t get made for the BBC, which include a number of ideological commitments. But these constraints necessarily bind anyone he might encounter as well. Ultimately, within whatever pond the Doctor might in practice exist within, he is the biggest fish.

Or at least he can be. Outside of Whitaker’s stories, he finds himself increasingly constrained, bound into a more and more traditional notion of heroism. The Enemy of the World strikes back against that on a number of fronts, serving as one of Whitaker’s final arguments for a version of the Doctor fundamentally less connected to any notions of human goodness. It is an argument he is already losing, and will always lose. But equally, it is never one he loses entirely—the possibility of the Doctor’s amorality will always persist.

What do we make of this? To some extent very little—the spectral possibility of amorality is simply not a very large hope. But within the confines of BBC morality, with all its implicit defenses of imperialisms old and new, it is at least something. It is other things as well—most obviously a move towards a sort of capitalist medial permeability that allows the character to be sold anew in the face of decades of social change. But it is also a flicker of subversion. Does this flicker serve the endless commercial production of Doctor Who? Of course it does; that’s how subversion within capitalism works. But it can serve other things as well. We have seen, over the past few David Whitaker stories, a figure that is much more troubling, imperialist, and racist than his defenders like to admit. Even here, he has at the end of the day written a story about the evils of leftist revolutionaries. And yet we must grudgingly admit that his admirers have a point: if there is some animating spirit in Doctor Who that is worth preserving on its own merits, as opposed to because of its quality as a diagnostic instrument, it was laid there by his strange insistence on the amorality of its central character.

Comments

Ms. Robot 1 month, 4 weeks ago

Hello friends.

The Doctor wins because he has a better television set.

Until the Doctor arrived, Salamander had enjoyed a measure of narrative privacy. He compartmentalized his life, so the left hand didn't know what the right was doing. He can be a different person altogether simply by changing context. But this only works as long as he keeps people from talking to each other. Which isn't easy, given that he's an international figure.

Because the TARDIS gives us a view into all the areas of Salamander's life that no on else is privy to, Salamander becomes exposed. This is what leads to his downfall, and literally speaking at the end. It has nothing to do with morality, even though the process of narrative non-disclosure is, in itself, amoral.

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prandeamus 1 month, 4 weeks ago

"a story about the evils of leftist revolutionaries"

What actual leftist revolutionary policies does Salamander espouse? Is he raising class consciousness? Is he dismantling the middle-class?

Surely he's exposing the evils of a dictator who shares a number of superficial resemblances to contemporary revolutionaries, attacking the symbol not the symbolised. Unless of course, that's alchemy?

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Roderick T. Long 1 month, 3 weeks ago

While on the surface Shakespeare's history plays are lionising the ancestors of his own day's ruling class, beneath the surface they're usually doing something more complicated.

Take, for example, Henry V. If Shakespeare had intended Henry V as a straightforward heroisation of his subject, then it would be unaccountable why he opens the play with a secret ecclesiastical conference at which the Archbishop of Canterbury reveals that he has made an offer to Henry that the Church will support his war effort against France financially, in exchange for Henry's siding with the Church against a bill in Parliament that would deprive the Church of half its property.

In the subsequent scene, Henry asks the Archbishop to prove that Henry's claims in France are legally valid. The Archbishop then produces a long and complicated legal and historical excursus that no one present is qualified to confirm or disconfirm. But thanks to the earlier scene, we already know that the Archbishop has a strong financial incentive to tell Henry what he wants to hear, and that Henry for his part has a strong incentive, both financial and political, to believe what the Archbishop is telling him -- so the effect of the first scene is to undercut the second scene in such a way as to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the war.

Someone intent on simply telling the glorious rise of the current order would not have included the first scene, nor made the case for a just cause in the second scene so obscure. (And that's just one of many scenes in the play that undermines a purely heroic reading.)

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Roderick T. Long 1 month, 3 weeks ago

The relevant scenes (abbreviated):

https://youtu.be/yoPiWFdXUAc?t=222

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Roderick T. Long 1 month, 3 weeks ago

(The Olivier version, in effect a patriotic war propaganda film, omits the secret council of bishops entirely.)

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Aylwin 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Even the spambots are grimdark now.

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writepaperfor.me 1 month, 3 weeks ago

A very good article. Thanks to the author. It is very important to support and help students.

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Larry W 1 month, 2 weeks ago

This story is big with Jamie/Victoria shippers.
1. Both of them are wearing nearly matching plaid skirts at the beginning
2. Victoria is smushed on top of Jamie in the cramped helicopter
3. Jamie gets her into Salamander's household by calling Victoria "his girlfriend".

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