Outside the Government: Secrets of the Stars

(34 comments)

It’s October 20th, 2008. Pink is at number one with “So What,” a situation that lasts a week before Girls Aloud take over with “The Promise.” with Snow Patrol, Leon Jackson, Geraldine, Katy Perry, Kanye West, and the Saturdays also charting. In news, Colin Powell offers Barack Obama his endorsement for the Presidency, the New York City Council decides to allow Michael Bloomberg a third term, and Ted Stevens is found guilty of seven counts of fraud, a conviction that basically costs him his Senate seat before being overturned. That being the most American-centric news roundup I think this blog has ever done, we should also note that the episode of The Russell Brand Show in which Brand and Jonathan Ross place obscene prank phone calls to Andrew Sachs aired two days before this story. 

This story being Secrets of the Stars. Let’s start with the obvious point, which is that even by the standards of Doctor Who’s long history of ignoring anything that might inadvertently be mistaken as scientific reason or plausibility, this episode does not make a bit of sense. It hinges on the idea that astrology is real, not because of our universe (where it can’t be, as we’re reassured repeatedly), but because it’s the science of that popular repository of magical stuff that needs a quasi-scientific explanation, the universe before ours. Where it is apparently thus the science of Abaddon. And the Beast. And probably some other stuff. 

It is worth pausing a moment in order to attempt to wrap our heads around that, if only so that we may savor the strange feeling of our heads failing to gain any traction whatsoever and slowly sliding off to form gibbering, uncomprehending piles of head at the base of this plot point. Astrology’s central tenet is that the positions of astronomical bodies has causal effects on phenomena in the real world. This is already a dodgy proposition, given that astrology is based not so much on the positions of astronomical bodies in any absolute space but on their positions in relation to the observation point of Earth. The central concept of astrology, used prominently in Secrets of the Stars, is the zodiac - a chain of constellations that conveniently line up so that the sun moves through them over the course of a year. But when we say “the sun moves through them” what we mean is that from the vantage point of the Earth as it travels around the sun, the sun appears in the sky in positions corresponding to those constellations.

It is also worth remembering something we’ve discussed previously, which is that a constellation is not an astronomical phenomenon but a perceptual one. Constellations are not formations of stars in real space, but coincidences in which stars from wildly different places line up into a geometrical configuration that was aesthetically pleasing to some ancient astronomers. The constellation of Taurus, for instance, is comprised of stars ranging from thirty light years away to hundreds of light years way, with no influence on each other or interactions other than happening to appear in about the same place if you look from Earth. A constellation only exists for a given planet, in other words.

All of which makes astrology just about the only form of magic that makes less sense, rather than more, if you attribute it to the universe before ours. As a system of belief that depends not only on the specific arrangement of objects in the present universe but on the act of observing those objects from a specific vantage point within said universe, astrology really cannot belong to a universe in which none of those objects exist. This appears to leave Secrets of the Stars in a rather messy position. Far from doing the usual trick of “this seemingly unscientific thing has a scientific explanation,” the episode is left to instead pull off the mildly staggering feat of making astrology look even more like arbitrary mystical woo than it started.

It’s interesting that this should happen in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with its overt focus on Doctor Who in the mid-70s. Because in practice Secrets of the Stars is in many ways a thematic remake of Sarah Jane’s penultimate Doctor Who adventure, The Masque of Mandragora. In that story, way back when, we noted that there was an odd tension between the story’s ostensible embrace of hardline rationalism over the superstitions of mysticism and the fact that, being a narrative, it was in fact structured in a fundamentally mystical way. Because, of course, narrative is all arbitrary mystical woo. A thing happens because a writer asserted it did, and for no other reason. Causality and explanation is always an illusion - an ornate system designed to cover up the fact that things happen for no reason other than fiat. And so in a story when the astrologer proclaims that a character will die, even if the astrologer is fraudulent, even if astrology is rejected, it carries weight and foreshadowing simply because that is how the alchemy of narrative works.

And all of this fits within a large history of Doctor Who playing it a bit fast and loose with astronomical terms. The classic series is infamous for a swath of writers who never quite seem to understand how large a galaxy actually is, and the Doctor inexplicably describes the location of Gallifrey (in Sarah Jane’s first story, in fact) as “in the constellation of Kasterborous,” a statement that makes no apparent sense given the nature of a constellation. (From what planet, exactly, does Kasterborous exist? It cannot be Gallifrey, and it’s not Earth… the Sontaran homeworld, perhaps - that’s who he’s talking to at the time - but even this makes little sense given that a constellation doesn’t define a region of space.) Which is to say that Doctor Who’s narrative universe has always had a few problems with astrology, galaxies, and constellations, and that as aggressively non-sensical as Secrets of the Stars may be, it actually doesn’t cause anything about astrology, constellations, and the stars in Doctor Who to make any less sense than it did going in.

These themes have been an occasional obsession of TARDIS Eruditorum, however, and so it is worth reflecting on them at least a little. In the past we have suggested that the thing that makes any sense at all of this endless talk about constellations is if, in act, the act of observation is somehow crucial to self-understanding - a point we mostly raised in terms of Gallifrey’s mysterious location in a constellation, tying it to the notion of observation that seemed central to early depictions of Gallifrey. But here we have something else - a sense that the planet Earth is controlled, in a fundamental sense, by the nature of its perspective on the universe. The way the universe appears from Earth somehow controls Earth. 

This is actually sensible. The realm of what is imaginable is, after all, constrains all that can be said or done. In this regard the idea of astrology controlling people makes an odd sort of sense. Astrology is, after all, an entirely perceptual phenomenon. But what, then, do we make of the claim that this power dates from the universe before ours? There is some sense built into this as well, inasmuch as it’s linked to the popular assumption that Gallifrey is located in the ancient past, but that’s New Adventures lore and thus, if not out of bounds, at least not the most satisfying thing to turn to. Though this is the angle that Faction Paradox, with its suggestion that the strong anthropic principle is one of the Time Lords’ most fundamental means of control over the universe, ultimately goes with.

But let’s offer a different approach. After all, we’ve been talking about “our” world through all of this like The Sarah Jane Adventures takes place in it, when, in point of fact, it clearly doesn’t. This is one of the oddities of the Davies era, after all - it’s the one era that cannot be read as taking place anywhere other than on television. It’s not just that it finally breaks the rules entirely on whether people know about aliens, but that its entire grammar at times is in terms of television. When big world events happen, the exposition takes the form of montages of television news, so that television forms the very fabric of this world. Even here, when Trueman controls the world, he does it through television. The dynamic of watching and of perspective cannot be removed from this equation.

In which case the universe from which astrology hails is not some dark and Lovecraftian realm, but our world - the world in which The Sarah Jane Adventures is crafted as television. This is, in many ways, the same issue that sprung up with The Masque of Mandragora. The reason astrology has power is that in television, everything is significant and communicative, and thus that the world works in a fundamentally mystical way. Mysticism, after all, is little more than the inappropriate attribution of causality. But in an Aristotelean structure in which everything makes everything else likely or necessary, everything really is causal, and mysticism is true. This has the benefit of being literally accurate - Trueman’s power really does come from the fact that the writers gave it to him. The people he controls really are controlled because their perceptions of the universe, perceptions which only exist in their creators’ insistences, declare that they are.

In which case the resolution, in which Sarah Jane’s never-birthed son is able to breaks Trueman’s hold is interesting precisely because it stems out of the rules of the narrative. What happens, in effect, is that authorial power reaches its limit. There is only so far this story can go before it stops being a Sarah Jane Adventures story. Eventually the narrative reasserts itself, with all of its own rules, and there becomes a point where the insistence of the old universe simply holds no sway. The narrative cannot allow certain interventions. And this is an important comfort to take with a show like The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is in hindsight haunted by the circumstances of its end. 


It could also, admittedly, just be that this episode is a slightly naff children’s runaround.

Comments

SpaceSquid 3 years, 6 months ago

...but even this makes little sense given that a constellation doesn’t define a region of space.

Of course it does; any planet circling a star within a constellation is "in" that constellation. Much as Los Angles is in a blue state, despite their being no conceivable absolute spatial definition of the term. All one needs is a common frame of reference.

And I quite like the ludicrous idea that at some point the various species of the galaxy decided the best way to group star systems was via some kind of shared central point and some form of mutually agreed aesthetic sense. It doesn't do enough to just say "it's in Kastaborous, mate", sure, but then neither does it do enough for me to tell people my home town is some way north of where I live now, but oftentimes that information seems to be sufficient.

Link | Reply

Charles Knight 3 years, 6 months ago

Just as an aside, since I'm an infrequent reader of this blog (being reading the books), the article is a little confusing as it's completely unclear what show you are discussing right until the end of the article.

Link | Reply

IG 3 years, 6 months ago

AIUI this was actually intended to be a direct sequel to Masque of Mandragora, but references to the villain being the Mandragora Helix making a return attempt were removed at some point in the scripting process.

Also, surely it's Pyramids of Mars that first mentions Kasterberous? So perhaps the constellation was named by the Osirians...

Link | Reply

Abigail Brady 3 years, 6 months ago

Maybe Kasterberous is the constellation Gallifrey is in when seen from the original homeworld of the Time Lords?

Link | Reply

David Ainsworth 3 years, 6 months ago

Unlikely, given that Sutekh immediately asks for coordinates from galactic zero center. Bob Holmes always seemed vague about this kind of terminology. I've read accounts trying to reinterpret Kasterberous as the system. Or, given that Sutekh doesn't ask which galaxy he's getting coordinates from the center of, it could mean "galaxy" in this context.

Link | Reply

jane 3 years, 6 months ago

I think Phil's point is that "constellations" in the sense of astrology are defined from an external point of view -- "constellation" wouldn't be a "natural" grouping of stars but rather an arbitrary one. It's like saying Mars is in Virgo -- it's only perceptually "in" that constellation.

Of course, Time Lords have a different perspective than astrologers. I'd image a Time Lord to understand a "constellation" not in the astrological sense, but simply as a grouping of stars that do have some causal relation to each other. Or even, perhaps, metaphorically -- that the "society" of Kasterborous shines so brightly it's apt to call it a constellation.

Link | Reply

SpaceSquid 3 years, 6 months ago

I think Phil's point is that "constellations" in the sense of astrology are defined from an external point of view -- "constellation" wouldn't be a "natural" grouping of stars but rather an arbitrary one. It's like saying Mars is in Virgo -- it's only perceptually "in" that constellation.

I agree entirely that it's an arbitrary grouping, I'm just arguing there are plenty of arbitrary groupings we use here on Earth that are nonetheless perfectly common and understandable descriptors. As I say, you'd need some kind of consensus as to from what specific point to draw constellations, but that seems to throw up interesting questions about interstellar society (well, I'd find them interesting) rather than being proof that the Kastarborous idea can't work.

Of course, Time Lords have a different perspective than astrologers. I'd image a Time Lord to understand a "constellation" not in the astrological sense, but simply as a grouping of stars that do have some causal relation to each other. Or even, perhaps, metaphorically -- that the "society" of Kasterborous shines so brightly it's apt to call it a constellation.

That might work even better. It seems entirely reasonable that one would want to group stars somehow to allow easy reference (think of how irritating life would be were we forced to give latitude and longditude every time we refer to a location), and that these groupings need a name. Not every work of fiction should feel compelled to go with "sector".

Link | Reply

SpaceSquid 3 years, 6 months ago

Did the Time Lords live somewhere pre-Gallifrey? This would be a wonderfully simple resolution if so.

Link | Reply

jane 3 years, 6 months ago

There's another view of astrology to consider here -- perhaps not apt for this episode of Sarah Jane (which, lamentably, I haven't seen) but for the topic in general. To some astrologers, the stars don't control the events on Earth so much as they reflect them. As above, so below.

This is still mystical woo, but it's different mystical woo, and perhaps more supportable. First, it's based on a principle that Everything Is Connected, which is shared by more than one philosophy. "Indra's Net" is another metaphor for this principle -- the deity Indra has net that hangs over the Centre of the world, made of millions of jewels, and each jewel is reflected in all the other jewels. The concept was expressed in terms of grains of sand in Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist," and Steven Moffat recently used it in the Pandorica.

The other aspect of astrology that's not entirely woo is that it can be largely co-creative, relying largely on metaphor, story, and the larger patterns of the world. Every person has a birth chart, made of twelve houses, in which lie all the planets. The houses and planets all have their own stories, their own meanings, but those will be unique to every individual. Each of us has Jupiter in our charts, and Jupiter tells a story of expansiveness, of growth. Where that manifests in my life will different than in yours. I can use my chart to construct a story of that principle, as it relates to me, and thus illumine a very abstract thing that is actually a part of me, and only reflected in the planet above.

Astrology, in other words, is really psychology, a way of tapping into the subconscious mind through a sideways approach -- necessarily, because the "conscious" or "willful" approach can't get through (otherwise we'd still be talking about the conscious mind, and not the subconscious). A good astrologer will know all the stories, and will also be a good "cold reader" -- someone who can pick up on our own subconscious cues, cues which are otherwise unavailable to us, and help us to create a story that at once reveals what is hidden, as well as creating a sense of union with the larger cosmos.

Link | Reply

jane 3 years, 6 months ago

That might work even better. It seems entirely reasonable that one would want to group stars somehow to allow easy reference (think of how irritating life would be were we forced to give latitude and longditude every time we refer to a location), and that these groupings need a name. Not every work of fiction should feel compelled to go with "sector".

Looking at the current motifs in play for describing "space-time coordinates," they certainly imply a sense of orbits and relationships, of circular systems, not the arbitrary chopping up of a galaxy into a pie, or a grid.

Link | Reply

elvwood 3 years, 6 months ago

I read somewhere (on the ever-reliable Internet) that the backstory was changed from Mandragora when it was realised that one of the NSA novels had already dealt with the Helix returning at this particular time - I won't mention the book's name in case anyone wants to avoid being spoiled, but it was an okay-but-nothing-special tenth Doctor one. Personally it wouldn't have bothered me - I've already incorporated two versions thanks to the seventh Doctor DWM story, and a third would have made little difference - but I can see that it is at least plausible.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

And so in a story when the astrologer proclaims that a character will die, even if the astrologer is fraudulent, even if astrology is rejected, it carries weight and foreshadowing simply because that is how the alchemy of narrative works. ... But in an Aristotelean structure in which everything makes everything else likely or necessary, everything really is causal, and mysticism is true.

As Aristotle writes in the Poetics: "Such incidents [in tragedy] have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; there is more of the marvellous in them then than if they happened of themselves or by mere chance. Even matters of chance seem most marvellous if there is an appearance of design as it were in them; as for instance the statue of Mitys at Argos killed the author of Mitys’ death by falling down on him when a looker-on at a public spectacle; for incidents like that we think to be not without a meaning."

Link | Reply

Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

To some astrologers, the stars don't control the events on Earth so much as they reflect them. As above, so below.

Indeed. I like to think of astrology as analagous to a clock face. It isn't '5:45' because your watch says so. The position of the numbers and hands of a clock don't determine what time it is, they present an analogue reading of the hour and minutes. In the same way the stars and planets do not determine people's actions or predict the future but present an analogue (using metaphor and myth) of the potential influences they might feel and may suggest a variety of potential outcomes depending on the path taken. Tarot and numerology perform similar functions and are in fact connected by their symbolism and numerical equvalences.

This strikes me as an eminently useful tool for the Time Lords to use, given their concern with influencing by observation a deterministic multiverse of possibilities. The terminology of constellations as relating to planetary positioning in regard to Gallifrey may then simply be the Doctor referring to some ancient mysticism of his home world. The Sisterhood of Karn's beliefs for instance. As you said jane - The written language we are shown and which is referred to in the narrative as 'Old High Gallifreyan' implies a sense of orbits and relationships, of circular systems.

Link | Reply

Iain Coleman 3 years, 6 months ago

This is still mystical woo, but it's different mystical woo, and perhaps more supportable.

It may be different, but it is no more supportable.

It's true that "everything is connected". In this context, everything is connected by the gravitational field, as people who study the stars and planets closely found out some centuries ago. The advantage of this particular version of the "everything is connected" principle are that it is amenable to testing, and it has passed every test thus far devised.

Link | Reply

Iain Coleman 3 years, 6 months ago

I prefer to imagine that among spacefaring races, the traditional idea of a constellation becomes pretty much useless, and the word is repurposed to apply to gravitationally bound clusters of stars.

The rather eccentric use of "galaxy" in Doctor Who(and much other sci-fi) is harder to square away.

Link | Reply

Josiah Rowe 3 years, 6 months ago

Once again, Google's software that attempts to match ads with audiences based on the presence of keywords fails amusingly:
http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v478/josiahrowe/Mobile%20Uploads/image.jpg

Link | Reply

Froborr 3 years, 6 months ago

I'm not sure it's the case either that narrative operates purely at the whim of the author or that narrative is causal (which seems to contradict the previous claim) and reality is not. Rather, narrative follows a different kind of causality than material reality. In material causality, to find the cause of an event you must look to its past, until eventually you get back to event zero (presumably the Big Bang). In narrative causality, events have both diegetic and extradiegetic causes, and to find the diegetic cause you look into the future, until you get to event zero, the end of the story.

Put another way, in narrative causality, events occur because they will be needed later--the guns are on the mantelpiece in act 2 because they will be fired in act 3.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

In material causality, to find the cause of an event you must look to its past

As a good Aristotelean, I think that in material causality, to find the cause of an event you often have to look to its present.

Link | Reply

BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

And of course narrative causality applies to the real world too (as Aristotle likewise saw). The reason guns hang on the wall in the real world is often that they will be needed later.

Link | Reply

Galadriel 3 years, 6 months ago

According to the DWM special editions about SJA, the Mandragora Helix was the original villain, but it had to be changed too much to fit the plot.

Mandragora is also in play in the Sarah Jane audios; season two focuses on a doomsday cult formed by the duke from that episode, but I don't remember if it actually displays power or not.

Link | Reply

encyclops 3 years, 6 months ago

The comments here are vastly entertaining, but even if they hadn't been, I'd be glad I read this post. Even though I still haven't seen an episode of SJA (I have yet to get to episode 2 of Torchwood, even), I appreciate you having added the phrase "mystical woo" to my vocabulary.

Link | Reply

heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

I'd just like to point out that this episode makes perfect sense if you treat Astrology as a form of DOM manipulation. He's using a set of XPATH-> queries to hook up everyone in the world by their biodata['birth_sign'] attribute and like falls through the crack because that attribute it unset.
It's no different than the Sykorax's (biodata['blood_type] == 'A+') manipulation. These are messy-grabby set manipulations that use any sort of publicly-accessible attribute to manipulate the subset they define. I'm sure if the seventh Doctor had drawn a set-excluding circle around Sarah's gang they would have been unaffected by it.
And then of course there is the absolute identifier. biodata['id'], or biodata['true_name'], a handle that grants irresistible, non-exculdable power over the target object. That's why alchemists and occult practitioners must guard their absolute identifiers so carefully.
doctor->who();
doctor->who();
doctor->who();

UNRELATED: Phil I reccomend you re-read JLA: Rock of Ages before reviewing The Pandorica Opens because Kyle's quest is, IMO, freakishly synchro with that episode. (Joe the Barbarian too, though it's much less so.)

Link | Reply

ferret 3 years, 6 months ago

Because stars in constellations are generally very distant in relation to one another, this does allow for them to perform one useful, accurate task: triangulation.

Perhaps if you use all the stars of the constellation of Kasterborous and triangulate them, Gallifrey is within that 3 Dimensional space. It doesn't precisely matter where Kasterborous is 'best' viewed from, so long as the stars that make it up are known.

I find this appealing, as constellations are 2D phenomena, their downfall being that they are disparately 3D, but between the contradiction a use can be found...

Link | Reply

Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 6 months ago

Didn't James Randi come up with that phrase, as a diminutive of "woo-woo"?

Link | Reply

Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 6 months ago

Funny how you mention the whole "constellation of Kasterborous" thing, Phil, considering Tennant used that phrase for the first time in ages in "Day of the Doctor" not two months ago...

Link | Reply

elvwood 3 years, 6 months ago

One of the surprises for me this episode was Russ Abbot. I knew him as an OTT comedian from the 80s, and came with certain expectations of how he would be. He caught me out once, with a sympathetic performance as Truman in the opening - then again when he didn't convince once Truman became a designed-to-be-OTT figure, where I had imagined he would be more comfortable.

Anybody else affected by similar baggage? How did his performance seem to people who had no idea who he was?

Link | Reply

J Mairs 3 years, 6 months ago

I've been trying to find a succinct way to explain this for ages...

Thanks Froborr - I will be quoting you in the future.

Link | Reply

Pen Name Pending 3 years, 6 months ago

I just keep getting an ad underneath showing revealing images of a computer-generated woman with "play now" underneath. It is rather unfortunate.

Link | Reply

Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

Ugh. Will try to nuke that, Pen Name Pending.

Link | Reply

Daru 3 years, 6 months ago

@ ferret - Yes! I like the thought that the term of constellation could refer to 3D triangulation, marking off a region of space. I can visualise that and it certainly works in my mind as a concept.

Link | Reply

Daru 3 years, 6 months ago

Yeah I knew him as a kid from watching him in the 80's. Even then as a Scot I cringed at his Scottish parodies.

I was very surprised in a good by his touching performance at the beginning of the episode and hoped that it would go down a different road from what we ended up with - so yeah was not surprised by his OTT climax.

Link | Reply

Froborr 3 years, 6 months ago

I have often wanted to write a history of science and philosophy entitled "Proving Aristotle Wrong." He had an incredible talent for being wrong about everything it is possible to be wrong about, consistently and unerringly. In the case of his study of causation, for example, he missed the difference between purpose and cause. The placement of the guns on the mantelpiece is not caused, in real life, by their later use, but by the *past* intention of the person who placed them there to use them later--an intention which may or may not be translated into action.

@J Mairs: You're welcome! It's a distinction I've been kicking around for some time--I think much of magical thinking and woo can be reduced to expecting narrative causality to apply in real life.

Link | Reply

Daibhid C 2 years, 10 months ago

The NSA novel in question actually namechecks the SJ audio, the DWM comic, and a PDA which I won't spoil either as being "partial" invasions of the Helix, paving the way for its "full" return in that book.

Link | Reply

Victoria1483 2 years, 2 months ago

I am amaizing about outside-government-secrets-of-stars.It's also comprises me a lot of useful facts-Thanks for valuable information.Really enjoyed reading first to last.If you have time please visit my astrology readings page and please leave comments.

Link | Reply

New Comment

required

required (not published)

optional

Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

Authors

Feeds

RSS / Atom