3 years, 11 months ago
Last War in Albion will be up tomorrow.
It’s November 19th
, 2009. The charts haven’t changed. STS-129, the third-from-last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, launches. Barack Obama makes an international trip to China. The Original of Laura
, an unfinished novel by Nabokov, is published over his wish that it be burnt upon his death. France qualifies for the 2010 World Cup due to Thierry Henry committing a deliberate handball to score. Oprah Winfrey announces the impending end of her television show. The Large Hadron Collider is turned back on.
While on television… oh dear. The third season of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been in many ways uneven, but The Gift is frankly an unmitigated disaster. Attentive readers may recall a kerfuffle back in the first season of Davies-era Doctor Who when Lawrence Miles, enfant terrible of the late Wilderness Years, famously and controversially lambasted The Unquiet Dead for its alleged xenophobia. The argument went that the episode went to great lengths to have the Doctor refute Rose’s objections to the aliens being allowed to use human cadavers as bodies only to prove Rose right when the aliens really do turn out to be evil. At the time, I largely sided against Miles, suggesting that he was making a reading of the episode that no actual viewer would make, and thus was talking in a vacuum.
Which brings us to The Gift, a story in which a pair of Raxicoricofallapatorians explain that they are not members of the villainous Slitheen family, who had previously been the only Raxicoricofallapatorians we’d seen, but instead members of the virtuous Blathereen family. Much of the cast, particularly Clyde, treats them with suspicion, assuming from the outset that they’re evil. Rani is the only person who defends them, and even Sarah Jane stresses the importance of being suspicious of aliens. Eventually it turns out that the aliens are in fact irredeemably evil - so evil, in fact, that Sarah Jane has to kill them - and we get a final monologue about how there are some good aliens, while offering an overall moral that suspicion and paranoia are the correct way to treat people who are different than us until proven otherwise.
That this is done with the Slitheen, whose original concept was a deliberate cut against the idea that aliens are best identified as a species, is even crueler. The entire point of the Slitheen is that they were set up to trick the audience into thinking they were monsters, when in fact they were people and characters. And the vague hedge that the Blathereen were actually half-Slitheen accomplishes little other than suggesting that there are some people who are just irredeemably evil because they have bad blood in them, and they should probably be killed via explosive farts.
So really, fuck The Gift. It’s consciously and deliberately xenophobic, there’s no way to read it as anything other than that, and it’s also unambiguously for children, which means that The Sarah Jane Adventures closes out its third season with an act of overt and conscious evil. There's no reason for it, and everyone involved really and genuinely should have known better, because they are smarter and capable of making better television than this. Everyone involved should feel properly ashamed of it, and I frankly hope they do.
“Now or Thereabouts,” on the other hand, is a short story by Blair Bidmead featured in Obverse Books’s 2011 Faction Paradox anthology A Romance in Twelve Parts
. The story tells about the Faction Paradox initiation of Ceol, who is a thinly veiled version of Kelsey Hooper, the character that Clyde was created to replace after Invasion of the Bane
. (At one point an equally thinly veiled Maria Jackson shows up - Ceol talks about her “pink velour trackie,” and Maria is said to have spent several years in the United States; beyond that the name Kelsey derives from “Ceol’s Island,” at least according to numerous sources that may or may not be right, but are right enough to establish an allusion)
The initiation takes the form of an extended riff on The Apprentice, with various “Little Siblings” competing for an initiation into the Faction and being berated extensively by Godfather Starch. Eventually the competition comes down to Ceol and one other Little Sibling, Dominic, who makes an impassioned speech that, from the description, is exactly the sort of winning speech that the most skillfully slimy reality television contestants are adept at. Ceol, on the other hand, suggests that Dominic “would be an excellent candidate. He wants everything the Faction offers. But, that’s the difference between him and me, Godfather. He wants to play dress-up. He wants to appear mysterious. He wants this! He wants that! I need this, Godfather, not want. I need this. It’s not a question of choice. It’s a question of… survival. It’s this or it’s nothing. End of story.”
This is an interesting moment, to say the least. The underlying logic that suggests a failed Sarah Jane Adventures character is a good choice to establish as an agent of Faction Paradox, those loveable not-a-Doctor-Who-Spinoff-At-All-Guv-Honestly narrative terrorists from the Wilderness Years, via a parody of a reality TV show about fetishizing capitalist zeal over any sort of human decency in a macabre attempt to please some judge whose sole qualification is his incidental success at rent-seeking is, to say the least, obscure. But that is perhaps the point. We have, after all, at this point swerved rapidly from the BBC's number one international franchise to a children's knock-off of it to an off-license appropriation of a minor character published in an anthology belonging to a franchise that's at this point on its fifth publisher that isn't even seriously an attempt at making money so much as at having a bit of fun with an obscure fandom. We are as far from Lord Sugar as you get, parodic name aside.
Which, in point of fact, it is. As a discarded supporting character on an ancillary show, being subsumed into Faction Paradox really is the only way her story could possibly continue. Sure, maybe during the Second Wilderness Years someone will bang out a short story for whatever the equivalent of Short Trips is in which Kelsey makes some sort of cameo appearance, but really, she’s unlikely to have a life even as well-developed as that of Brendan Richards, who appeared incidentally in a pair of Wilderness-era short stories.
No, the only option that is left open to her is to become a narrative ghost - a fly in the ointment. All that she can possibly be is an objection; a dissent. As a forgotten and discarded bit of story, her only hope is to heavily arm herself and reenter the narrative as something unrepresentable and forbidden within it. Her name cannot even be spoken, for aesthetic reasons as much as legal ones. Instead she’s haunted by Ryan - a relatively mysterious figure. Whoever he is, Maria recognizes his name, suggesting that he dates to the shared past of The Sarah Jane Adventures. And yet his identity is thoroughly unreal - he appears as a priest with a face of continually exploding glass. “Had there ever been a ‘real’ Ryan,” she wonders. “She couldn’t picture it. It didn’t matter. It was just some bad time, gone on for too long,” she decides. And then she kills him, because, apparently, there actually are monsters it's necessary to kill because they're irredeemably evil. It's just that those monsters aren't aliens or metaphors for the Other - they're metaphors for ourselves.
This constitutes some sort of capitalist victory, apparently. A successful engagement with the free market. A promotion. Which is fair enough, in a world where our leisure time remains a form of labor. When we voluntarily work at our own entertainment, grinding away at our bullshit jobs in order to fund our Obverse Books habit, or our Big Finish habit, or our drug habit. Killing a shitty story borders on a revolutionary act. Invading it even more so. Occupy Bannerman Road.
Very well. A call to arms, then. It is time to decide that the stories we do not like can be excised. “It’s all true” is one option, but perhaps not the most interesting one in the end. A vulgar postmodernism where there are no wrong answers is ultimately an impotent one in which we have no ability to fight off the unpleasant ones. “It’s all true” is as much single vision as “only one thing is true.” Perhaps an alternative - any of it can be true. A story can be dismantled and put back together however we want. Endings are always an option, as is returning to any old point and simply carrying on, appropriating the discarded relics of the past for our own idiosyncratic purposes.
A better sort of gift, this - the ability to reject our childhoods when they inconvenience us. The ability to declare that we are telling our own stories, consequences be damned. These alien lands - these stories we are not yet in - are not the Other, but rather roles we can step into. Masks we can don. Different people we can be. We are under no obligation to become them. We can reject them, declaring that we want to be something else. We can refuse to be written, can write ourselves out, can decide that we have been written into a different book entirely.
How can the alien be a source of suspicion or paranoia in a world where this is possible? The alien is only another sort of possibility. A different thing we can be. There are a thousand more interesting stories than another alien invasion. Why take the obvious route? Why accept a story where the alien resolves inexorably towards being the evil. Or indeed, more compellingly, why not become evil ourselves? Why not let the aliens take over - let the world become something other than what it is. “For once, I truly hoped we'd found a friend out there, someone Earth could trust, a way for us all to move forward, humans and aliens together,” someone said once, on a dead and rejected piece of narrative. “There are friends out there, too. Friends who really will want to help us. And as we all know, there's nothing more important than friendship. And then, one day, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, Earth could be a shining example to the entire Universe.”
Perhaps. But why accept friendship? Why not be colonized by weirdness. Why not abandon ourselves to the pleasures of the text so completely and hedonistically that there is no more human, only the everlasting strangeness of what was called the alien, back when there was still a barrier between us and them to maintain. It is, after all, a simple move - a case of taking the pleasures of the text more seriously than the text itself does.
Indeed, let us ever so briefly run the clock in reverse. This is, after all, just a bit of filler in the course of our big Davies-era denouement. We've got the usual array of little filler posts - some comics and other ephemera of the time - and then the regeneration story. So given that we're all obsessed with the Time War right now, let's let Davies enter the War in Heaven and do some real damage.
Davies has already launched his most savage attack on Faction Paradox. Never mind the Grandfather Paradox, let's kill your own grandchild. The utter rejection of reproductive futurism. It's a strange thing for a man with a children's program to do. And yet what if we accepted the value of children's programs even in a world where we reject reproductive futurism. The point, after all, is that children are people, not abstract principles. They are worth engaging with well and substantively. The entire point becomes to teach children a way to be.
If we cannot bring ourselves to kill our own grandchildren, then, perhaps we can bring ourselves to kill our own childhoods. To wage war on them, rewrite them, reclaim some self from the wreckage. Does this constitute political rebellion? Does this constitute an opportunity for utopia? Perhaps not, but it is the best that Davies can muster, and it's no worse a stratagem than any other the program has offered. Through hedonistic ecstasy, allow ourselves to become something other than people.
We could even take inspiration from the third-season finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Mona Lisa's Revenge, and embrace the possibility of becoming art and story ourselves.
It’s November 19th, 2009. The television has gone dead. There is nothing to watch. In the darkness, we tell ourselves stories. Terrible, monstrous stories, too awful to ever be shown on television.
The best sort.
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