It's tough to pin down, but it's probably somewhere in 1994 - I've got myself around 6th grade for this one. I've still got the VHS tape on my shelf. Well, by my hand now. Because my shelves are cluttered, I had to move two objects to get to it. The first of these was a DAPOL action figure of K-9 - the inexplicable green one. The second was a bottle of Yankee Candle branded Balsam and Cedar oil for use in an oil diffuser. For personal reasons of what I want to focus on in my meditation and thought these days, I am burning things with cedar in them of late. It was in my bedroom, near the table where I put candles and incense. I'm writing this in an armchair maybe two yards from it, which is also where I have been watching the episodes for the blog to this point - though I am moving in the next week or two.
The cover is exactly what I remember - Tom Baker in Prydonian robes staring straight out of the tape. He's looking straight at me, right now, an eery reconstitution of Patrick Troughton's screen-peering for a no-longer new media age. The tape was on the third shelf of books. This is a fact that will be lost on anyone who does not know me well. In the first year of my PhD program, I had started class before I had finished unpacking. Or, rather, I had done a very hurried unpacking in which I shoved books on shelves out of boxes however they were packed, vowing to organize my library later.
. It's a history of the bookshelf. Which is to say, it's a history of how we store and organize our knowledge. It ends with an amusing essay proposing various ways in which one could organize one's books in the modern world - ways beyond the obvious ones like alphabetically or by subject. And Petroski shares amusing anecdotes or comments on the pros and cons of various methods. He talks of one friend who had a room that was, among everyone he knew, considered a marvel of interior design because she had orchestrated a complex color scheme for her library where various regions of the room, from paint to decor to the books themselves, were organized by color - reds fading through oranges to yellows across a wall of the room.
One method he proposes is by strict order of acquisition. That is to say, he proposes that whenever you get a new book, you shelve it immediately to the right of the previous newest. And I realized that, for reasons relating purely to my own idiosyncrasies, I could actually remember to a usable degree of detail the order in which I had gotten my books back to about 5th grade. Since then I've stretched it back further, though only with about five or six books from childhood. Currently my library runs from
I like this system of organization for several reasons. First, I find it convenient. It is easy to maintain, and does not require me to ever commit periods of time to full-scale library reorganizations unless for some reason I reintegrate books obtained from my parents' storage, and even then I have to do a hefty chunk, as I leave small gaps for that purpose. I just put the newest book on the rightmost position on the newest shelf, and buy new bookcases as needed.
More importantly, I find it easy to use. I value my media collection. It is very large - I believe it required over 40 boxes the last time I moved. It spans a very long period of my life, and I have strong associations with almost every part of it. I remember very well the circumstances I obtain and read books in. It borders on synesthesia. As a result, I can find things this way - by going "Ah, yes, I'm going to need Constance Penley's
, which I bought on Amazon in Chicago along with two other books on slash fiction for my Masters thesis." This highlights a second organizational benefit - there tends to be logic in what books I get at what time - I will get a number of books on one topic or by one author. Thus it doubles as an approximate subject ordering. There are a few glitches I allow myself to facilitate this - sometimes I will move a newer edition of something back to where I acquired the original edition because the associations are stronger for me there. Other moves happen for similar idiosyncrasies - one volume of a series I got at a time very different from the others might get shelved with the rest of the series for convenience.
I say all of this to explain that a given point of shelving in my library represents a moment in my history. When I pulled this video off of my shelf, I did not pull it from the Doctor Who videos section, but from the space that, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, is immediately between the book or video that I experienced before The Deadly Assassin and the one I experienced after. The fact that it came off of the third shelf indicates further that this is from early in the period of my life that my books and media collection spans back to. And that period of my life is, in a literal sense, looking at me right now. It's kind of spooky. Just saying.
The VHS is the old movie version of it. With an 85 minute runtime and no cliffhangers. This is how the early video releases and many reruns of Doctor Who treated it, and is the source of my continual stressing that Doctor Who stories should be understood episodically instead of in this format. Because the movie versions do real violence to the sense of pacing in the stories. The back is a monument of back of video box writing:
I remember this one vividly. Everybody does. It's one of the big classics. And yet watching it this time, I noticed for the first time the chalk outline of the Time Lord President, complete with the tracing of the elaborate Time Lord robes, and I burst out laughing. This is the sort of story that has that sort of absurd detail.
This is also the sort of entry that has that sort of absurd detail. It's one of
entries. The longest one of the project to date, and God willing a record I am never going to come close to challenging. In four distinct episodes, although also quite viewable in movie form. Ladies and gentlemen, The Deadly Assassin.
We are told, at least, that's what will happen. Because The Deadly Assassin says so. You get twelve regenerations, and then you're dead. And this is, for some reason, taken enormously seriously. Russell T. Davies tried to retcon it with a line in The Sarah Jane Adventures and... failed. It didn't stick. He admitted it was just a throwaway line.
What's bewildering, of course, is that it's a throwaway line in The Deadly Assassin too. And yet for some reason, that line is taken as gospel by a significant number of people - as some rule that demands that Doctor Who is, with Matt Smith, coming perilously close to its end. The Deadly Assassin is, in this regard, accurately named. There remains a bizarre faction of Doctor Who fans - a death cult of sorts - who view this story as something that provides a necessary reason why Doctor Who as it exists must someday die completely. This is the story, it seems, that assassinates Doctor Who itself.
I mean, if we're being remotely sane, of course the show will survive. Writing your way around the twelve regeneration limit is as trivial as Holmes dropping it in is. The bewildering thing, though, is that when the time comes and
regenerates into the Fourteenth Doctor there are going to be fans who are upset. Somehow, this story has led to the phenomenon of fans who want the show dead, and who will be terribly upset if it doesn't die.
Certainly, in a narrative sense, this story feels like an attack on the show. The Deadly Assassin willfully cuts a transgressive path across what Doctor Who is. Its most basic heresy is its concept - the decision to set a story in the midst of the Time Lords themselves. Not merely to have them as supporting characters facing the same crisis as UNIT, but to set a story on Gallifrey that depends on the details of their culture specifically.
Conventional wisdom would have it that the content of this transgression is simple Holmesian mockery. The Time Lords are shown to be stodgy old men in funny robes. Holmes's stated inspiration is the structure of British universities, but let's face it - this is an overly mild version. Holmes is, in essence, making Gallifrey into the House of (Time) Lords - an aristocratic edifice that is fundamentally detached from real events. But this is too simple by far.
Let us turn our attention to one of the more interesting supporting details of The Deadly Assassin - the fact that the centerpiece of Time Lord society is the Panopticon. The term is borrowed from a prison design created by Jeremy Bentham, himself the ancestor of the Jeremy Bentham well known within Doctor Who fandom for declaring The Gunfighters to be the worst Doctor Who story ever and somehow getting people to believe him.
The Panopticon is a prison designed around the idea of surveillance. The cells themselves are arranged in a ring around a central tower. This central tower - the Panopticon itself - can thus observe any cell at any time, and the people in the cells can never know whether they are being observed or not, and thus will operate on the principle that they are always being observed. The Panopticon, in 1976, was in a strange vogue - its second most famous use, after Bentham's origination, is as one of the major examples in Michel Foucault's landmark study Discipline and Punish, which saw its first English translation in 1976. Here Doctor Who, seemingly independently, crosses that path as well. Again, history repeats itself across structural levels.
The Deadly Assassin, however, subjects the Panopticon to observation. The logic of the Panopticon is indistinguishable, after all, from that of the camera within a piece of visual narrative. The camera can observe any portion of the diegetic world, but is unobserved within the diegetic world. Until this story, at least, where Tom Baker, bereft of companion, begins to function by conducting a running dialogue with the camera. But this is just a reiteration of a larger point - that the Doctor has always been unobservable by the Panopticon. Even as they send him on occasional missions, he possesses a larger freedom to work outside of their sight. Like the viewer, he sees the Panopticon while remaining unseen.
Equally unseen, however, is the Master. Like the Doctor, he is capable of moving unseen by the Panopticon. In fact, the bulk of Time Lords have not even heard of him. Here, more than ever, he forms the Doctor's exact opposite. It is implied that the conflict between them is a more fundamental ordering principle of the universe than anything the Time lords involve themselves in - a more ancient conflict than Gallifrey is set to handle. Outside the gaze of the Panopticon - the all-seeing ordering principle - they fight.
And as the saying goes, an impossible alchemist will rise from the deep and strike the Time Lord dead.
It is, after all, alchemy. In several regards. We have always defined alchemy - and magic itself here - as a practice based on the belief that manipulating a symbol is in some sense equivalent to manipulating the thing it represents. In a spectacular world in which mere images are real beings, alchemy is the prevailing logic. And alchemy is embedded deep within Doctor Who's DNA. This is our first conspiracy theory - that David Whitaker, at once the most important figure in Doctor Who's development and the least understood, created a show that is genuinely magical, and that this influence cannot be erased from within the show.
I say our first conspiracy theory because the origin of Doctor Who is, of course, inseparable from the greatest conspiracy theory of the 20th century, the Kennedy Assassination. The two events are inseparable - the same event. And The Deadly Assassin invokes that event directly. The entire thing is a Kennedy Assassination joke - hence the infamous mention of the CIA
. The Doctor is the framed Lee Harvey Oswald, left to frantically search for the shooter on the grassy knoll. The giveaway clue, of course, is that the Time Lords, otherwise modeled off of British aristocratic institutions, have a President as their head of state in the first place. This sets up a strange parallel - a repetition of history. This is not only the moment of the show's death, but the moment of its birth.
But wait. The Master is the one who plots the assassination of the President of the Time Lords. Thus the Master is the one who kills Kennedy. Thus the Master is the creator of Doctor Who. By reconstituting both the beginning and the end of Doctor Who within the Panopticon, the Master seizes a fundamental and total control of the narrative.
This brings us to another case of history repeating itself. The Master alchemically seizes control of the narrative of Doctor Who. This is reflected within the narrative by the Matrix sections, in which the Master forms a world in which he has absolute power. Within Doctor Who, the Master creates a new show - a nightmarish parody of the show itself.
It is worth stressing early on, then, how disturbing these sequences are. Because episode three - the one that takes place primarily within the Matrix - is unlike anything we have seen in Doctor Who before. We've spoken before of how the show grapples with violence
. Here we see that pushed to its limits - an entire episode of gripping, well-shot action sequences comprised of nothing but fear and brutality. The Doctor spends the entirety of the episode wounded, dirty, and struggling not to save the universe but to hang on and survive for a few more minutes.
Even his visual iconography is taken from him. He trades much of it in as soon as he arrives on Gallifrey, having to give up his coat and scarf to sneak around. But in a particularly ingenious and subtle moment, when he first ventures into the Matrix he regains his most iconic prop - his scarf. Nothing else of his outfit makes it - just the scarf. And within minutes, that's destroyed. The message is clear - the Doctor loses the very things that make him who he is here.
The nature of what is done to the Doctor here is sheer violence to the concept of the show. The Doctor is shot. Twice. Consider that, at the end of Interference, the notion of Pertwee's Doctor dying of a gunshot wound in the dirt is transgressive brutality for that era. Here, less than three seasons past that point, the Doctor takes two gunshot wounds, albeit non-fatally. Then, for good measure, he is drowned, in a sequence of utter viscerally - his head is shown bobbing underwater. It's a shocking sequence. But unlike the violence of The Seeds of Doom, here it feels earned. The Doctor is in a TV show created by the Master, being hunted like an animal. That should feel scary. And it does.
This is, in other words, narrative collapse in the extreme. The subversion of the Time Lords is one detail in a far bigger and more terrifying picture. It is not mere happenstance that has left this story with the narrative gravity necessary to doom the show in the future. There is a reason for it.
It's November 5, 2011. At least, it is when I'm writing this. Tomorrow will be thirty-five years to the day since Part Two of this aired. Rihanna are at number one with "We Found Love." Also in the top ten are Maroon 5, LFMAO, and Kelly Clarkson.
An account of the news. Top headlines on CNN are an army staff sergeant testifying in a trial charged with murdering civilians in Afghanistan and a story on a Mississippi ballot referendum to outright criminalize abortion by declaring a fetus to be a person. The New York Times's website leads with Greek Prime Minister Papandreou surviving a confidence vote and the death of Colombian guerrilla leader Alfonso Cano. While the Guardian's top headlines are lawyers warning Downing Street that interns should be paid, and the declaration that a global recession is closer because the G20 summit has failed.
Out of the headlines but very much in my mind are the Occupy movements - a growing swirl of global leftist activism. These movements are interesting - attracting more sympathy on the right than any leftist movement I have seen in some time, while deeply unnerving chunks of the establishment left, who predict their inevitable failure with inexplicable glee given their stated aims. As is surely unsurprising given my inclinations, I am tremendously fond of them, and think objections to their tactics are ludicrous. Their tactics are visibly adapted from those of the Situationist International, who, we should note, ran the most successful leftist uprising of the 1960s
. Yes, it failed, but it failed spectacularly and having come impressively close to success. There's not a better playbook to pull from.
But the general spirit of the times is uneasy - as though things are on the brink of some collapse. The Occupy protests are not in the headlines today, as I said, but have been a mainstay for weeks now. The riots before them - The Guardian has several stories on the results of government inquiries into them today. It's a slow, ratcheting up of tension - a growing sense that some historical shift is dropping soon. One reaches around, trying to find some larger narrative to fit into. Conspiracy theories appeal.
Many of my thoughts on the conspiracy theory as a genre have already been published in my eternally-temporarily-defunct blog The Nintendo Project, particularly in this entry
and this one
. The conspiracy theory is the flash of ordering insight behind the chaos of a world that defies explanation. Alan Moore, one of this blog's major intellectual influences, observes that there is obviously a conspiracy. There are, in fact, hundreds of them, all running around. But the truth of the matter is that the conspiracies just crash into each other. No conspiracy actually runs the world. The horrifying truth is that there is nobody driving this thing. The world is completely rudderless.
But the conspiracy theory gives the illusion that it is otherwise. That there is some sort of master signifier that orders creation. Understood this way, we realize that the paranoid logic of the conspiracy theory is more prevalent than we give it credit for. Big-Ass Science
is, in the end, as much a conspiracy theory as any other - an adamant belief that there exists one explanation that accounts for everything that there is. In this case, that only in mathematics will we find truth.
The conspiracy theory is a defect of reasoning given animus. The compelling nature of an explanation metastasizes from solving a material problem to an ordering principle of the universe. History repeats itself. These data points form into patterns, patterns form in the mind into narratives, and we find ourselves with a story that explains everything.
These narratives are not false. This is the true appeal of the conspiracy theory. Even the most vile and baseless contain somewhere within them a germ of truth. A conspiracy theory is not nonsense, but parasense. Birtherism is a pathological form of the observation that the election of a biracial and cosmopolitan intellectual marks a tipping point in the cultural balance of power in the United States. 9/11 Truthers are an insane form of legitimate observations about how the underlying geopolitical narrative that led causally to 9/11 has been erased in favor of 9/11 as an origin point for a new geopolitical configuration. The conspiracy theory is never quite wrong.
But it is never quite right either. Clearly a new approach is necessary. A new heuristic for a world with a surplus of conspiracies and a deficit of ordering principles. A new kind of paranoia. A new kind of conspiracy theory. Let us further set the rules here. We will define this type of conspiracy theory through its construction, bootstrapping it, to borrow from the language of computer science. We will form a new form of conspiracy theory by writing a conspiracy theory about it. And by dint of the larger rules of this blog as a structure, we will form it in relation to the Doctor Who story entitled The Deadly Assassin.
This is not, of course, by accident. The Deadly Assassin is, after all, the point of death for Doctor Who as a concept. We know from The Brain of Morbius that death is the engine that drives alchemy itself - a thesis reiterated in softer forms through previous stories. If The Deadly Assassin is the point of death for Doctor Who - and at the very least it is a point of death for Doctor Who - then it is the perfect field for this fight. This is a story that can, at least for a moment, be located at the absolute center of Doctor Who. In the Panopticon, if you will.
The logic of the conspiracy theory is the opposite of falsifiability. For a school of people, who I have been tweaking gleefully of late, this is prima facie evidence of their inadequacy. The criterion of falsifiability, however, was never designed for use in this fashion. Its originator, Karl Popper, set out not to define truth but science, distinguishing it from metaphysics. Science is, under Popper, defined by falsifiability. A claim is scientific if it can be disproven. Science, under Popper, proves no affirmative truths - it merely provides statements that can be disproven but that have resisted all attempts to disprove them. Those that have resisted the most are considered the most important and fundamental. Those that have resisted fewer attempts are emerging and interesting theories.
You can read as much Popper as you wish and you will never find a line that dismisses the importance of metaphysics. Popper does not dismiss them. He merely renders them a separate category from science. But if you think about the structure of Popperian science - a wealth of contingent truths any of which could shift out from under the very foundations of knowledge with a single experiment - this is hardly a surprise. Popper, by coming up with a clear and simple rule that drives science, renders it more postmodern than any attempt at deconstruction ever has. (There is a reason that the hardest of hardliners in the Big-Ass Science crowd - the likes of Alan Sokal - despise Popper as well.)
The conspiracy theory, like Wikipedia and occultism, functions on a logic of verifiability. That which provides a satisfying explanation is true. We cannot function without this logic. But the consequence of it is that multiple contradictory perspectives become true. The Situationists, to whom this blog is as indebted as much as it is to Alan Moore, from this build to their idea of the spectacle - the contradictory nexus of representations that, through material systems of power, is actualized not just in spite of its contradictions but because of them, becoming the dominant paradigm of the social order.
The spectacle is the apotheosis of the conspiracy theory - the fusion of all conspiracy theories into a worldview so totalizing that it has become material. As Guy Debord puts it, "When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings." Thus the spectacle rejects attempts to deny its reality as a mere computational matrix.
If we cannot deny this reality, what other options are available to us? Continuing within the theory of the Situationists, we have two major artistic concepts: détournement and the derivé. Détournement is defined simply as "the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble." That is, taking established portions of culture and transplanting them into new contexts, or severing them from existing ones. The derivé, on the other hand, is "a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences." Designed originally for use on physical geography, "in a derivé one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."
Subsequent development, particularly Alan Moore's suggestion of "Ideaspace," a realm in which ideas arrange spatially into a landscape of associations, suggest that the Situationists have in fact identified two instances of the same tactic. The derivé detournes the city, and détournement is simply a derivé through psychic spaces.
But for this to work, we must find a psychic equivalent of the attractions of physical terrain. This is inherent in the concept of Ideaspace. Moore's standard example for how Ideaspace works is that, in Ideaspace, Land's End and John o' Groats are adjacent to one another despite being defined as being opposite ends of Britain. But if we take a broader view, we can see clearly how it works. History repeats itself. These repetitions form leylines and paths through psychic spaces - patterns that can be walked.
The derivé is used to produce psychogeography. Here we create instead, long after we've developed the technique in practice, its obverse: psychochronography. An extended perambulation through imaginary places. The lines we walk are, of course, conspiracy theories. But here they are conspiracy theories with their usual motives for movement and action stripped out. We do not seek a totalizing explanation, but seek instead to slide out from one conspiracy theory into the next. A conspiracy theory is not a path out of the labyrinth of the spectacle, but merely one of a multitude of roads and paths within it. We will reconfigure the psychic space to our liking. We will tear out its logic and replace it with our own.
In contemporary media terms, we call this the retcon. The retelling of a story along a different logic. Which means that The Deadly Assassin is itself a psychochronography of Doctor Who. Its technique and the technique of this blog are indistinguishable.
History repeats itself. But a reiteration is always different from the initial event. This is what historical progress is - the sum total of deviations from progressive iterations of events. It is necessary to repeat ourselves. It is necessary to revise. We can see these repetitions across this story. The Deadly Assassin assassinates Doctor Who. It also, however, features a literal assassination - the striking down of the President of the Time Lords at the end of its first episode. This is itself a recurrence of the more famous assassination of a President, JFK. This event is itself indistinguishable from the start of Doctor Who. These events are iterations of a larger whole. There are big things afoot. This is a narrative collapse story.
We have already developed a basic principle of narrative collapse. The Doctor can reconstitute the narrative after its complete collapse, albeit at great cost. What is the cost this time? There are three costs, as it happens, and all are among the most severe the series will ever pay. The first, as we have discussed, is the setting of an endpoint for the show.
The second is one we'll deal with primarily in a few more entries' time - the sacking of Philip Hinchcliffe happens because of this story. There is a line of causality from this to the cancellation of the show that can be traced. It is not the strongest argument that can be made, requiring as it does the almost total condemnation of both Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner, but as with any conspiracy theory, it is not quite wrong either. The fallout from Hinchcliffe's sacking results in a neutered show that is less equipped to handle shifts in the television landscape than it has been before, setting off a death by a thousand cuts.
The third consequence, however, is potentially the most damning: fandom.
I have throughout this blog maintained a love-hate relationship with fandom. And, for that matter, I have throughout my life done so. As is obvious by the fact that this blog exists, I am as much a ridiculous fanboy as they come. But my issues with fandom as a gestalt entity are numerous. The case that fandom led to the demise of Doctor Who is far stronger than the case that Hinchcliffe's sacking did. And this story has one of the strangest roles in fandom imaginable.
On the one hand, it is as much a cornerstone of the series' continuity as The War Games, if not moreso. Its reconception of Gallifrey becomes the canonical one. This is in and of itself a bewildering phrase - "canonical." This is perhaps the most chilling legacy of the story - it creates an idea that there is some sort of unifying explanation of Doctor Who. This is the most bizarre conspiracy theory of all - that Doctor Who forms a single coherent story that is resolvable and understandable. That there is such a thing as "canon."
But what is strangest about this is that, at the time of transmission, Doctor Who fans flipped out at the story because of its capricious disregard for past canon. The story that went on to become the cornerstone of Doctor Who's canon was, initially, hated for its violation of that same canon. The cornerstone of this is Jan Vincent Rudzki's review of the story in the first issue of the second volume of the fanzine TARDIS. The review floats around a fair amount - an online copy can be found here
There are many things that are very strange about this. First of all, canon is based on a sort of extreme exegesis of the text itself. But that exegesis still isn't even possible at this point in the series. The series has not obtained repeatability in a meaningful sense. Accordingly, the very evidence that is required to build a canon doesn't exist yet. Canon is archeological at this point - stitched together from memories and the distorted recollections of paratexts. At this point, Countdown to TV Action contributes more directly to the sharable evidence of what Doctor Who is than the actual evidence.
Second, and perhaps more importantly it's only the fans who believe in canon. The production office doesn't give a damn. In all likelihood, the problems Rudzki identifies all come down to one very simple thing - Robert Holmes in no way cared enough about consistency with past stories to check them. Canon is, at this point, being imposed entirely from outside the show. Nothing in the show itself is attempting to be anything other than an ongoing TV show working roughly along Terrance Dicks's old rule that anything from within the last year can be reintroduced without explanation, but anything older than that should be assumed to have been forgotten by the audience.
So the cornerstone of Doctor Who canon - the story that envelops both the beginning and end of Doctor Who - has several problems. It cannot possibly have a canon, it is not intended to have a canon, and the most prominent person at the time to argue for its canon, Rudzki, lacks the ability to review the text in sufficient detail to construct a canon.
Here, then, we make our stand. Here is where we build our new conspiracy theory. In the most obvious gap available. The Deadly Assassin is the centerpiece of Doctor Who's canon, and yet nobody has made a sincere effort to build a canon out of it. Let us, then, break the rules productively. One of the primary tricks that this blog has used since day one is that it has been willing to treat any given moment of Doctor Who as the Panopticon that fixes the actions of all other moments. This is one of the basic derivés we've developed. We let ourselves drift along the logic of each story on its own, instead of in accordance with the supposed master map of Doctor Who.
Let us, then, take that to its most radical level. Let us ask precisely what is going on in The Deadly Assassin and allow, for a moment, at least, that to be the primary lens through which we view the series.
Our methodology will be straightforward - we will assume that whatever we see in The Deadly Assassin is correct, and that all other stories must be understood in terms of it. Beyond that, we will apply a sort of Occam's Razor to the matter - we will attempt to alter readings of past stories as little as possible, but will always opt to retcon them instead of rejecting the apparent implications of The Deadly Assassin. What we won't do is care at all about what comes after this story - we are going to limit ourselves entirely to what could have been observed in 1976.
Our technique will be equally straightforward.We will play the same game that Rudzki is trying to play, albeit with a significant advantage: we have reference books and video recordings of episodes that Rudzki necessarily lacked. The form will be, then, a mad folly - an extended fanzine rant written 35 years too late. A systematic debunking of Rudzki's points long after they stopped being immediately relevant. Or, to put it another way, an attempt to see what other default positions were available to fandom.
A thought experiment. A alternate reality. Or perhaps just a computational matrix.Part ThreeIt's...
Rudzki starts with what seems the most obvious point to raise - the fact that we are told that this is the greatest crisis ever to face the Time Lords. He raises the obvious point in response to this - "I suppose Omega was only a minor nuisance!" This is actually a subset of a larger problem - one Miles and Wood deal with at length in their side essay "Did Rassilon know Omega." Essentially the problem is this - The Three Doctors and The Deadly Assassin give us two very similar stories about the early history of the Time Lords, but in one Omega has the starring role, and in the other Rassilon does.
Miles and Wood suggest that, until 1983 at least, the easiest explanation is that Omega and Rasilon are two different names for the same person. This is not a bad explanation, but it is wholly extra-textual. A more textual explanation exists. We know that two things occurred at the end of The Three Doctors, after all - Omega's black hole becomes a supernova, and the Time Lords utilize it as an energy source. Now in The Deadly Assassin we are told that Rassilon took the heart of a black hole to Gallifrey. By far the easiest way to account for this in the context of The Three Doctors is to assume that Rassilon obtained the heart of the black hole - presumably the Singularity - when it exploded as a supernova, i.e. after The Three Doctors.
The only problem this raises is it requires that a massive amount of time pass on Gallifrey between The Three Doctors and this story, but that is easy enough to account for even if you demand that the Doctor and Gallifrey age in sync - it's not that hard to assume a lengthy jaunt around the universe for Pertwee without Jo - he ran off without her in The Green Death and nobody thought anything of it, after all. And after as massive a reconfiguration of Time Lord society as The Three Doctors implies, it presumably doesn't take that
long for the civilization to reconstitute itself according to a completely new order of things. The ancient past of Gallifrey doesn't have to be nearly as ancient as people tend to assume.
We also should, in thinking about all of this, deal with Genesis of the Daleks
, in which the Time Lords opt to sneak around and try to destroy the Daleks in their past rather than meet them head-on as a threat. The Time Lords subjected the Daleks to history there. Why, then, would we be surprised when the Time Lords are themselves subjected to history? Far from a strange anomaly in The Deadly Assassin, this seems the point of it - that the Time Lords have been cast down into the gristle of history.
Rudzki moves on, declaring that "the next blunder was the guards," specifically their existence given the supposed omnipotence of Time Lords. Again, however, we saw that omnipotence broken in The Three Doctors, with the Time Lords abandoning Omega's black hole for a new source of energy. The easiest assumption is simply that this new form of energy renders the Time Lords in need of guards. But all of this ignores a larger issue with The Deadly Assassin - the strong sense that eventfulness of this sort is profoundly rare on Gallifrey. Never mind the degree to which the guards undermine the past sense that "the Time Lords were
supposed to be very
powerful." Regardless of how necessary the guards are to deal with any given threat, what threats are they actually there for in the first place?
Again, there is a relatively easy explanation that alters very little: the guards, like almost everything else we see, are a matter of ceremony. This is, after all, wholly familiar to a British viewer, where the phrase "guards" can readily be linked to the ceremonial Changing of the Guard. The scarlet clothing of Gallifreyan guards even seems to evoke the Queen's Guard. The Guard are, like everything else on Gallifrey, the empty repetitions of past historical moments.
Rudzki next objects to the nomenclature of the TARDIS, specifically that it is identified as a "Type 40 TT Capsule" whereas previously it was a Mark 1. Well, first of all, here we have the benefit of better record keeping than Rudzki enjoyed. Properly, it's the dematerialization circuit that is a Mark 1 in Terror of the Autons. All we know is that the Master's uses a Mark 2 circuit, and that the Monk's TARDIS in The Time Meddler is a "Mark 4." Nothing, in other words, suggests that the Doctor's TARDIS is a Mark 1.
At this point it may appear that I'm just picking nits, but there are two important points here. The first is simply to expose the absurd speciousness of discussions of canon in general. The second is that Rudzki, in poking holes that don't exist in the story, is missing the actual point. He asks why there is only one Type 40 TT missing, but that's not a question. It's an answer - the Doctor is unlike the other renegades we have seen as well. We knew his TARDIS was older than theirs, but we had no idea that it was so old as to be overtly obsolete and no longer in use.
I will skip most of the bits in which Rudzki complains about the seemingly depowered Time Lords, as I've already proposed that treating The Three Doctors as a turning point in Time Lord history makes sense. I will similarly leave be his assertion that the problem with Holmes's CIA joke or with Time Lords who have bad hips is that "there is a time and a place for humour, and this wasn't it" as a simple aesthetic difference instead of a factual one. But I will finger his claim that "Time Lords are aliens
and do not need to conform to human motivations whatsoever," a fact he believes to have been supported by The War Games
of all stories.
First of all, let's note the obvious thing about Time Lords - that as non-human species go, they sure look like humans. Sure, plenty of aliens do, but equally importantly, plenty don't. In the iconography of Doctor Who, true alienness is defined by monstrosity. But more than that, the Time Lords have always
appeared as a race with an inherent tie to human culture, if not humanity. They're the guardians of history and were first set up on opposition to the guardians of war. These are concepts that are only meaningful in a humanesque cultural context.
Rudzki next complains about a variety of anomalies surrounding the Doctor. Again, however, Rudzki is complaining of inconsistency where none exists. The overall point of everything he identifies - that the Doctor has premonitions where other Time Lords don't, that he scoffs at how primitive Time Lord technology is, and that he has seemingly been forgotten by most of the planet - is that the Doctor is in some sense special. Bewilderingly, Rudzki manages to complain about the exact opposite, complaining that the Doctor should be better known because "it's very
rare for a Time Lord to leave Gallifrey." But this is the entire point! The Doctor is here shown to be, if I may borrow a phrase from the future, far more than just another Time Lord. After all, the strong sense is that his fight with the Master is, at this point, bigger than Gallifrey - that this is not a case of the Doctor being caught up in Gallifreyan affairs, but one of Gallifreyan affairs being caught up in the Doctor's affairs.
Again, this is not inconsistent with what has gone before. The Doctor has never appeared like an everyday member of his society. But notably, he's never seemed notorious either. Consider his initial descriptions - he is "cut off" from his people, and he says to the War Chief that he had "every right" to leave. His granddaughter was seemingly unusual in her psychic abilities, although he thought of returning to his home world to help her develop them. And of course there is The Mind Robber
and its implications, if we want to go in that direction. But since Rudzki says the reason they should know who he is is that he saved their bacon in The Three Doctors, let's just get our explanation straight from there again and remember that we are, with the Doctor, dealing with someone who broke the first law of time
Surely anyone who is committed to the idea of a consistent Doctor Who continuity in 1976 would be struck by the potential ramifications of that phrase. If we are to treat The Three Doctors as some sort of monolithic continuity event that The Deadly Assassin is remiss for contradicting, surely we must treat it with considerable attentiveness and seriousness. (I, of course, have little desire to treat The Three Doctors that way, much preferring my Blakean fantasia, but if we are going to play this game with The Deadly Assassin, let's play it.) In which case, we have to admit, The Three Doctors constitutes such a change to what the Doctor is that there are next to no assumptions that can still be made about his relationship with the Time Lords.
And again, this is borne out. We don't see the Time Lords again until Genesis of the Daleks, save for K'anpo, who is a renegade as well. And in both that and The Brain of Morbius, they act profoundly different. Rudzki admits this - he cites both stories as ones that "go very much against what has been done before." But this cannot be considered a problem when both the Time Lords themselves and the Doctor were shown in The Three Doctors to have gone through a transformative change. The Time Lords had the entire technological foundation of their civilization thrown into reverse and the Doctor violated the most fundamental law of time. I wasn't cheating in the least when I let that entry go completely mad. The Three Doctors plunged Doctor Who into complete chaos by any continuity standards.
Which brings us to Rudzki's next sequence of objections, involving the question of why the Time Lords appear bounded in what they can see in time. To some extent this is simply a restatement of principles we've been applying to the Time Lords since The Curse of Peladon
. If we treat the Time Lords as we have - as guardians not of history in the sense of an ordered and fixed set of events but of history as a process that is continually in operation at every moment in time - then the powers Rudzki wants to ascribe to them would be the last ones they would have. "Why need the brain machines to predict the future?" Because the future is determined by the Time Lords' stewardship of the historical process. This has always been how the Time Lords appear to work after all - they foresaw a time when the Daleks would be the dominant life form. They foresaw the key moments of history on Peladon and Solon that required the Doctor's intervention. They clearly don't have a perfect record of all that has happened.
Or, to put it another way, if there is such a thing as a planet of the Time Lords upon which a thing can happen in the first place, the Time Lords do not exist sufficiently outside of time to be all-knowing. The possibility of having anything happen to the Time Lords requires that they have a sense of the present. And the present only makes sense as the moment that is accessible as opposed to only available through imagination or memory. This has to work both ways. The present is not just a threshold beyond which we can only predict, it is equally a threshold beyond which we can only remember. Thus we answer, at least thematically, Rudzki's next question - why they do not use a time scanner to learn exactly what happened at the assassination. We'll return to the practical matter later.
It is at this point that Rudzki makes his most nonsensical statement. I quote, "Another fact forgotten is that Time Lords are immortal
. In 'War Games' the Doctor said they could 'live forever barring accidents'." These two sentences are in direct contradiction. If they can only live forever barring accidents, they are not immortal. If you're allowed to bar causes of death, anyone can live forever. Having something that can kill you is called being mortal
. The obvious assumption, once we reconceptualize the two face-changes the Doctor has made as "regenerations," is that this is the process by which Time Lords handle accidents. They get a regeneration cycle of twelve regenerations that allow them to survive mishaps. Barring any mishaps, each regeneration is immortal. Not only is there not a contradiction when you look closely at the episodes, there's not even a contradiction when you look closely at Rudzki's words.
Rudzki then inadvertently raises one of the great misses of continuity in Doctor Who history - the world's most reasonable fan theory. Here we must give him credit - he gets it spectacularly wrong, but his case is impeccable. Remember how in Brain of Morbius, Morbius shows us what give every appearance of being pre-Hartnell Doctors? Well... there are eight of them. Then Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee. So eleven. That would make Tom baker the twelfth Doctor, and thus mean that whoever his successor is must be the final Doctor.
Rudzki is, of course, completely right - this is, by any standards that are trying to impose a "canon" of facts about Doctor Who, clearly the intent of the program. It makes sense - the Doctor and the Master are contemporaries. If the Master is this close to death, surely the Doctor would be as well. The evidence is even better than Rudzki thinks it is - both Morbius and this are Robert Holmes scripts, but Morbius was under the pen name Robert Bland to handle the fact that it was a heavy rewrite of a Dicks script. It's clearly the intention that whoever writes the story in which the next Doctor dies is going to have to kill him off forever.
Rudzki continues, managing to identify a legitimate plot hole before coming back to his insistence that Time Lords should look at the past obsessively with time scanners. Clearly they don't do things like that in this story. So why does Rudzki obsess on it so? It is in fact worth noting that in none of the four stories we have seen in which scenes are set on Gallifrey has anyone mentioned anything called a "time scanner." This device appears to be wholly of Rudzki's invention, though it is admittedly something that it is now widely assumed the Time Lords have. The closest thing to a time scanner that has ever appeared in the show before was the Time-Space Visualizer
, and that became an agent of narrative collapse. (And let's get around to interpreting the Time War in light of that
story some day, shall we?)
But these devices are integral to Rudzki's entire objection to how the Master is able to tempt Goth with knowledge. Once again, the problem Rudzki identifies disappears. But here it is worth pausing and identifying an outright theme of problems - one Rudzki ultimately identifies as well. The Time Lords are seen to be able to be tempted by the devil in exchange for knowledge. Aside from being a straight lift from Faust, this combines with the next big point that Rudzki raises - why don't the Time Lords know their own history?
Because they don't. This alone should have been evidence that these time scanners he thinks they have don't exist, given that there's no actual evidence for the blasted things. But here I'm being a bit unfair. Goth would not have had to use a "time scanner." He could have used a TARDIS. I mean, even if the Time Lords don't watch history, we at least know that they go and visit it to observe it in person.
Don't we? Let's stop just a moment - we've only actually ever seen three TARDISes in Doctor Who - the Doctor's, the Master's, and the Monk's. We've actually never seen any other Time Lords travel by TARDIS. The bowler-hatted one from Terror of the Autons and K'anpo both appear to teleport. In The War Games, we pointedly see SIDRATs on Gallifrey, and they're used to send Jamie and Zoe home - not TARDISes. It's worth noting, after all, that the total number of Type 40s ever in use were 305. That is, for a populated planet, extremely small. If that is an entire model of TARDIS, TARDISes must be extremely rare items. (In fact, the only people we've ever seen with them are renegades.)
This clarifies Goth's position considerably. If we assume that Time Lords spend most of their time on Gallifrey in their present, the very fact that he was traveling and on Terserus to meet the Master suggests a Faustian nature to him. Knowledge is tempting precisely because the Time Lords seem to allow themselves so little of it. The point that Rudzki doesn't raise but should have, given his other objections, is to the idea of storing the brainwave patterns of dead Time Lords in the first place. What does death even mean to time travelers? If you want to meet a dead person, you go back in time and do it. But instead the Time Lords furiously archive their brains. This suggests that, rather than valuing huge, sweeping overviews of history that they value the material experience of it - a claim very much consistent with the larger arguments of this blog. The Time Lords, for reasons wholly consistent with what we know of them, appear to engage in sketchy historical record keeping. Indeed, they seem unwilling to commit much of any history to anything beyond memory - the prospect of something being stolen from their files was unusual in Colony in Space
, after all.
I will skip Rudzki's extensive complaints about the ending - they again seem like complaints of aesthetic rather than content. This leaves, by my reckoning, one major point to deal with - how to reconcile the seemingly partial knowledge the Time Lords have of the Doctor with their lack of knowledge of their own ancient history, and, in turn, how to reconcile the fact that the Doctor had heard of Omega with his apparent lack of knowledge of Rassilon. Rudzki proposes something close to the solution we've been moving towards - that the Deadly Assassin takes place in the far future of Gallifrey - but rejects it because of this problem of the Doctor being remembered.
Here it is worth simply summarizing the observations we have made in response to Rudzki's points. We have already observed that the doubling of creation myths to include both Rassilon and Omega (with Rassilon's accomplishment of removing the Singularity seeming much more impressive than Omega's of nuking a star) sets up an apparent problem. Likewise, we noted that the most straightforward way to resolve this problem is to observe that Time Lord society is radically transformed at the end of The Three Doctors, and that Rassilon's story took place after
that story. We do not know how long after, though we are forced to conclude that it's been a while.
But not, apparently, so long that the Doctor is out of sync with Gallifrey's history. People still remember him. But curiously, he is not remembered as the hero of the Omega situation. He's remembered only for his exile to Earth and for his schoolboy antics. Much of this discrepancy, however, begins to disappear if we understand the Time Lords in terms of memory. As we observed, all evidence is that the Time Lords keep extremely shoddy records of everything but the minds of past Time Lords. The implication is that they are a society that works entirely according to memory. This is not surprising - few concepts are more fundamentally allied with time than memory. In which case all we are actually being asked to believe is that Time Lords would have hazy memories of the sudden restructuring of their own society.
This is, however, not unreasonable. We are in a Robert Holmes script, as Rudzki states repeatedly, seeming to believe this is a bad thing. Holmes is exactly the sort of writer who would write a civilization that completely forgets their history after restructuring their society. In fact, and I assume this is fair play due to the lag between an episode airing and getting a fanzine out, that Rudzki had probably seen the next story, which deals with this exact theme of cultural memory and its foibles. Porting the conclusions over here is not unreasonable. Miles and Wood give us opportunities to do so as well, observing the similarities between the resignation ceremony and the State Opening of Parliament, an ancient and tradition-steeped ceremony that, at the time The Deadly Assassin was written, was a whole 124 years old. The idea that the Time Lords have a short memory for their own history is, in other words, completely consistent with everything we see.
As for the Doctor, as we said, he violated the first law of time. We can see from Borusa's attitudes about how the Time Lords need heroes that rewriting the official record is commonplace (another reason why the idea that the society as a whole has forgotten the Omega affair is not difficult to accept - Holmes has the Time Lords behave like exactly the sort of regime that casually rewrites history to suit political needs). Why would we assume that someone who did something as horrific as violate the first law of time would be remembered? In fact, it seems far more likely that someone who violates the first law of time would be run off of Gallifrey and largely erased from the historical record. And come to think of it, it wasn't just Pertwee's Doctor that violated the first law of time - it was Hartnell's. And we don't actually know when
in the Doctor's time stream Hartnell was plucked from...
But even if we don't decide to connect the dots and claim that the Doctor's exile from Gallifrey is actually caused by events in The Three Doctors, it's just not that hard to square all of this away. All it requires is a willingness to entertain ideas more creative than "Time Lords as generic godlike technocrats." The Time Lords rewrote their culture - which exists entirely as memory and oral tradition anyway - after The Three Doctors and excluded the Doctor for obvious reasons. Those Time Lords who knew him still remember him as the student they knew him as, but institutional memory declined to remember him. This is hardly surprising - you can rewrite political memory much more easily than personal memory. The Doctor, not having been on Gallifrey much lately, doesn't know the new history, but figures it out quickly, probably helped by the fact that he remembered The Three Doctors better than the Time Lords did. Simple, consistent with everything we've seen, and, I would argue, a more logical interpretation of the events up to this point than the one that fandom settled on. (What the series settled on is a matter for another entry.)
The remainder of Rudzki's objections are aesthetic, not factual. Though this is ultimately the deconstruction of Rudzki's objection. In his concluding paragraphs, he first retcons The Deadly Assassin out of existence, declaring that this entire episode was just a crazy nightmare that shouldn't be considered part of Doctor Who canon. Before going on to bemoan the aesthetic horrors of the changes this story brought. He simultaneously rejects the idea that the story makes any sense and talks about how he hates what it means.
He is wrong, of course, that it does not make sense. We have at this point resolved most of the continuity errors he raises. This leaves only his aesthetic complaint - that "Once, the Time Lords were all-powerful, awe-inspiring beings, capable of imprisoning planets forever in force fields, defenders of truth and good (when called in). Now
, they are petty, squabbling, feeble-minded, doddering old fools." Which is true - the Time Lords of this story are at times petty, squabbling, feeble-minded, doddering, and old fools.
Rudzki then asks the following question, reprinted verbatim:
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO
It's October 30, 1976. Pussycat remain at number one with "That Place Where They're Going to Define Fetuses as Human Beings." After two weeks, Chicago unseats them with "If You Leave Me Now," which remains at number one through the end of the story. ABBA, Rod Stewart, Wild Cherry, and The Who also chart.
In real news, Jimmy Carter defeats Gerald Ford to win the Presidency of the United States, setting off the American equivalent to the few years of relative social calm Britain is currently experiencing (relative, at least, to the government-felling upheavals of 1974 and 1978). Not much else happens.
Let us, then, take stock of what is on television.
The Doctor arrives on a fallen Gallifrey. But more instructive than the fact that it has fallen is the nature of its fallen state. In the course of making sense of this story, we have found ourselves reimagining the Time Lords along a conception of time that is radically different from what is usually assumed. We should note that this conception is not simply a high-minded and wooly bit of deconstructive theory, even if we did build it via a brazenly postmodern attack on what is basically just a 35-year-old equivalent of a shrill Gallifrey Base post. It is relatively easy to conceive of the Time Lords as a functional society that works as I outlined above.
All of the parts make sense. If the Time Lords actually travel relatively rarely and maintain a primarily living memory, they are Lords not in the sense of being masters of a fixed map of history, but rather in the sense of being masters of an eternal present. They alter the past and future as they see fit, pushing the universe at large towards their view of the arc of history. But they themselves are also subject to that arc. They do not set the agenda of history, but rather enforce it. They are not history's authors, nor its readers, but its grammar - its sentinels, if you will. In essence, they exist in the eye of history's storm, (an Eye of Harmony, perhaps) changing the past and future at will, but also being changed by their engagements. This is not a sign of their weakness, but of their ultimate commitment to this sort of history - they allow their own history to be nothing more than memories and stories, allow themselves to be subject to their own grammar.
This is, as I suggested, essential - the alternative "detached technocrat" view is antithetical to everything the series has shown us. If the Time Lords were, in fact, detached, disinterested, all-powerful beings who simply wrote history by fiat they would, in the language of the show to date, be evil. All-powerful beings who bend the universe to their own design are, after all, the archetypal villains of Doctor Who. Similarly, Doctor Who has always shown an awareness of the Faustian aspects of knowledge. That was the point of Planet of the Spiders
, for instance - that greed for knowledge is bad. Surely Goth's noting that the Master offered him knowledge must be taken in that vein.
No - the Time Lords make far more sense as a race who understands time not as a map that can be studied but as a phenomenon that is experienced - something that divides the universe into a past that is remembered and a future that is imagined, with a knife's edge of the present in which the arc of history continually exerts its pressure. This race of ancient beings with memories spanning millennia who act in a continual, short-sighted present is, in a fundamental sense, both a better understanding of time and of the series' ethics than the detached technocrats, which seem to amount to little more than assuming the Time Lords are a rip-off of Star Trek's Guardians of Forever
. (This captures one of the essential ironies of fandom - despite the fact that by any sane measure Doctor Who had been more successful than Star Trek had been up through the late 80s, Doctor Who fans were by and large insistent that it should act more like Star Trek. They got their wish, and the show proceeded to immediately become as successful as Star Trek had been: cancelled.)
In which case the strange power visibly held by the Master and the Doctor makes sense. The Time Lords at large may be the living grammar of history, but those who travel with TARDISes are its writers. Note that the one non-renegade we hear about traveling is Goth - one of the highest ranking Time Lords in existence. The implication is that travel is a symbol of power, as it should be given the potential consequences of it. This explains fully the strange reverence that the Doctor and the Master are held in by the rest of Gallifrey. They are known to be travelers. The games they play are bigger than Gallifrey itself.
And the game they play is the Kennedy assassination. Or, at least, a repetition thereof. But, of course, repetition is never equivalent to the original event. The whiff of Camelot (itself a suggestive term indicating that the Kennedy administration is itself a repetition of some earlier and not-actually-American event) may circulate around this story, but reading it as allegory is impossible. For one thing, the Doctor actually cast as Lee Harvey Oswald? Or is he on the grassy knoll? Similarly, where does the CIA fit in? Is Goth Lyndon Johnson, or is Borusa? Perhaps most significantly, what on Earth are we supposed to make of the fact that the cop who figures everything out and helps the Doctor clear his name is played by a Czech actor in an Eastern European accent?
No - this is not the Kennedy assassination, but rather the memory of the Kennedy assassination. A dreamscape, if you like. But, crucially, this falls somewhere between depiction and symbol. It is not simply the Kennedy assassination with a veil of allegory drawn over it, nor is it merely a symbol of the Kennedy assassination. It is a restaging - a reiteration. It is not the event itself but an echo of it.
Here the genius of Robert Holmes comes into play. He is, in fact, the only writer thus far in Doctor Who capable of managing this story. Holmes's specialty, after all, is his grasp of the small. He is at home with stories like Carnival of Monsters
. His genius in The Brain of Morbius was his grasp of small absurdities like having the all-powerful galactic conquerer be a suicidal vegetable envier. And here we see that genius in applied form - Holmes manages to perfectly capture the tone with which a crisis actually plays out - not with inspirational rhetoric but with political bitchiness and squabbling.
This introduces, in other words, a genuine materialism to this. And it's a materialism that The Deadly Assassin appears to display consistently. This is in many ways the primary appeal of reconceptualizing the Time Lords as a race that is ordered around the idea of memory. Memory is the material form of history. The reiterated dreamscape of the Kennedy assassination is closer to what the Kennedy assassination is for actual human beings than any thorough and well-documented account of the event could possibly be. The Kennedy assassination is far more important as an idea than it is as a documentable and falsifiable event.
And here we get to the true and frankly sickening absurdity of Rudzki's argument. What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who? It bothered to apply itself, that's what happened. It bothered to acknowledge a world in which history is accomplished by squabbling politicians instead of detached technocrats holding to absolutist ideologies of "truth" and "good." It bothered to be magic that affects the real world instead of magic that masturbatorily holds to the world of ideas. Far from undermining the Time Lords of The War Games, this is the story where we finally see the Time Lords bound by the same focus on the material realities of history that they demand of the Doctor.
I mean, really. If we're going to talk about the "magic" of Doctor Who - and notably, it's not even me who picked that word this time - which of these two options appears more magical? A show in which the past and future are fixed and knowable events that can be casually looked up on a time scanner, or a show in which the very nature of the universe is continually in flux because of a race governed by memory and imagination is continually trying to maintain the moral force of history even as they descend into material squabbles?
If magic is to be considered valuable, it is valuable only as the bridge between the realm of ideas and the material realm. That is what the revelation at the center of The Brain of Morbius is about. The claim that alchemy is solved by material social progress is not an abandonment of magic, but a confirmation of what magic is and always has been. Magic is not an empty intellectual exercise - the mere understanding of an already determined universe - but an engagement with it.
This brings us around to one of the most incongruous moments of the story, in which the Doctor refers to Borusa's coverup as his proof that "only in mathematics will we find truth." Here again, in the name of the fealty to the material past of the series that fandom so ignores in order to fetishize, we ought acknowledge our antecedents
. We have, after all, already been told that the TARDIS is a Platonic device. Likewise, the claim that mathematics is an absolute form of truth derives from Plato.
Mathematics, in this view, is distinct even from science. After all, mathematics is not based on falsifiability but on proof. The claim that 2+2=4 is not an empirical claim, but one of absolute truth. Indeed, the truth of mathematics transcends reality itself. The combination of atoms into molecules and reality is less precise than geometry itself. No mathematically true right angle exists anywhere in the world, and yet we understand the properties of a right angle. Mathematics is the realm in which we manipulate Platonic forms - the truest realm of all.
Given the spirit of this claim - and it seems unmistakably what the script is gesturing at - the Doctor's claim that Borusa's coverup proves this statement must be understood as a claim that the messy political reality that Borusa's coverup represents is as much an ordering principle of the universe as mathematics itself. It is worth repeating this claim, lest its sheer radicalness be obscured by the fact that it occurs over 11,000 words into a grotesquely long blog entry: human nature is as fundamental a property of the universe as mathematics.
This is, of course, a corollary of the nature of alchemy. But that does not make it any less radical, simply because it appears in a story in which we see the breadth of human nature. Human nature, after all, has always been a part of history in the sense that the Time Lords seem to represent. Human nature extends from our limitations - the fact that we are mortal, and that we are bound by the surface tension of the present, able to access eternity only through memory and imagination. And so of course, if the Time Lords are to be understood as embodying time as experienced they are also testaments to the fact that human nature exists and orders the universe.
We see here, then, the show's understanding of materialism. Because in crafting a dreamscape of the Kennedy assassination defined by its fealty to the squabbling pettiness of human nature the show has engaged in the real world in a manner far more material than it did just last story by faffing with a nuclear reactor. This is far more real and material than anything the show has ever done while earthbound. And this is the show's great radicalism - its stunning rejoinder to the "hard SF" crowd - that the realm of stories and ideas is every bit as material as the realm of physical things, and that engagement with memory and imagination is as real - perhaps even moreso - than engagement with technology and contemporary culture.
There is a messiness to this, although the mess seems to me problematic only if you are the sort of person who wants Doctor Who to be more like Star Trek, or who is prima facie opposed to the idea of granting memory and imagination power over the empirical. It is, after all, the same messiness that underlies the problem of conspiracy theories. In a rudderless world governed by a mad spectacle of contradictions, where the false is the moment of the true, what defense is there beyond a messy account of the world?
The conventional wisdom would have that there are two phases of Time Lords in the classic series - one that begins in The War Games, and another that begins here. We have already seen that the disjunct between these phases is not as stark as one might expect. But in truth it is more than that. This is the story in which the challenge offered up by The War Games - a challenge that was itself offered up by the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s - by the flower children and Marxists and radicals of the world. There, I said:
But in another sense, this is the real endpoint of the 1960s. The revolution failed. However much we may have liked it - and for my part, I loved it, especially in the Doctor Who sense in which the psychedelic revolution is literally embodied in Patrick Troughton's Doctor - it failed. It's time to break up the band. It's time to face the reality that the bad guys aren't external monsters, but the people who want to send riot police to crush the sex deviants planting flowers. It's time, in other words, to face reality. This is the message every sane and useful mystic in the world will tell you. It's all well and good to journey among the interiors of the mind and at the furthest fringes of consciousness and reality. It's all well and good to face gods and demons and encounter the fundamental truth of the universe. But the real test is what you can bring back from those mystical realms to reality. The real test is how you can live as a mystic in the real world.
Here we finally see the Doctor understanding how. Baker retains the mercurial dazzle of Troughton, peering out at the viewer, whether from screen or video box. This is once again a Doctor who trades in anarchy - who brings the Time Lords' world crashing down around their head just by his presence. Who runs for President to get off on a murder charge, then kills his opponent in a nightmarish dreamscape created by his arch-nemesis. Who grins and swaggers and charms his way around, and respects no authority. Who is animated by nothing so much as a giddy sense of joy at the universe (whereas his arch-nemesis proudly proclaims his sense of hatred). From day one
, that was what we said of Baker. He is a creature of pure charm.
And now he returns to face his jailers. In a perfect detail, Goth is even played by Bernard Horsfall, here in his fourth and final appearance. (He is, it seems, a favorite of David Maloney's, and rightly so.) Now he returns to show them that he has learned to use his anarchy. That he has realized the world of stories and the world of men are one and the same. Now his jesting becomes détournement. His wanderings through space and time are derivés. Now he mocks his way through history, aware of all its foibles and how they drive the engines of the world.
If this story is to be a gravestone for Doctor Who, then so be it. I do not say this because it is the best story, although I've no argument with any who say it is. No. Let it be a gravestone for Doctor Who for one reason alone. Because if we do center Doctor Who here, if we do let this be the rock of our canon and our fandom, then it does serve as a tombstone in one regard. It does mark where the magic of Doctor Who has gone.
It's gone into the world itself.