4 years, 10 months ago
We have already discussed in passing the rise of conspiracy theories and a fascination with UFOs in the 1990s. Since the next book we want to deal with is David McIntee’s First Frontier, the New Adventures’ big stab at a 1950s UFO story, it is, I suppose, time to deal with that more thoroughly. The obvious text to look at here is, of course, The X-Files, though we’ll circle back and find a larger pool of things in a bit.
Unfortunately, if you’re tracking the influence of The X-Files on Doctor Who it is difficult not to have the bulk of it be overwhelmingly negative. The story goes roughly like this: the success of The X-Files, which became Fox’s most successful show among its desired advertising demographic, let to Fox doubling down on “cult” television. This is a phenomenon we’ve talked about in passing a few times, but as we’re finally on the big watershed show in terms of it, we may as well deal with it. The basic idea of cult television is that it has a smaller audience than standard-issue “hit” television, but that its audience is exceedingly loyal. From a studio perspective the advantages of this are twofold. First, loyal audiences buy tie-in merchandise. Second, even though the audiences of cult programs are smaller, they are disproportionately young males with disposable income, a demographic that emits pheromones known to drive advertisers into a lusty stupor. And with The X-Files Fox discovered, or at least thought it had discovered, a reliable formula for this. And so one of the first things they did was agree to fund a TV Movie of an existing cult sci-fi property, specifically a cancelled British television series, which they did straight-up in The X-Files style, right down to filming it in Vancouver. But that’s another post.
Here I am more interested in The X-Files from a cultural perspective, and specifically as an artifact reflecting the role of paranoia in the 1990s and in sci-fi fandom. That The X-Files is a paranoid show ought go without saying. Its entire ordering principle is based around the mythology of government conspiracies to hide the existence of extra-terrestrial life. In this regard it is not alone - in the UK there was, not too long before The X-Files made its debut, the one-off drama Ghostwatch, in which the illusion of a spectral invasion of the BBC was assembled to considerable outcry as popular hosts, including a former Blue Peter presenter, are possessed, murdered, and other such fun. And also in the US is Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s surrealist triumph of a television series.
What is it that links this set together, exactly? The presence of secrets, first and foremost. All three are concerned with the prospect that there is a hidden truth behind things, waiting to bubble up. What is remarkable about Ghostwatch is not so much its existence or style as the way in which it provided a modern day version of the Orson Wells War of the Worlds panic. As before there are some rather intense oddities in the reports, perhaps most obviously the inherent strangeness of the idea that people who believe that the BBC is experiencing a paranormal attack would conclude that phoning in to comment is a reasonable thing to do. Scattered instances of confirmed and well-documented belief that the program was real exist, but they are scattered. What is more significant is that there was a desire for the media hysteria. The fantasy that a world in which ghosts attack the BBC could ever be so believable as to be mistaken for reality was uniquely appealing because it tied in with the fantasy that we do not understand the nature of the world.
But if we take that as a premise The X-Files and Twin Peaks both become difficult to account for. Both depend on the proliferation of information. Yes, that information is typically cryptic, whether in the form of an ever elusive “smoking gun” in The X-Files, or in the form of oblique dreams within Twin Peaks. But there’s an awful lot of it - a continual wash of information and data. And yet the nature of this data is to never settle on a conclusion. Back in the last substantive examination of the conspiracy theory I suggested that the conspiracy theory makes para-sense - that it approaches a fear or concern without rendering it useful. Eve Sedgwick, in a delightful chapter of her book Touching Feeling entitled “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” describes talking to an AIDS activist early in the AIDS epidemic about the theories that AIDS was deliberately engineered to attack certain populations. (These days we know it’s just another horrible consequence of colonialism.) The activist she was talking to was largely uninterested in the question, noting that even if it were possible to nail down every element of a conspiracy to create AIDS, “what would we know then that we don’t already know?”
Because, of course, the conspiracy does not provide an answer so much as it provides an interminable narrative stretching towards an answer that never arrives. Instead the paranoid narrative consists of an attempt to get ahead of the onrushing barrage of information. The point is not to understand the master narrative but instead to anticipate its next development. More savvy viewers of shows in the paranoid mode today recognize that there is likely to not even be a master narrative that exists prior to the necessity of tying it up in a series finale, and that the writers are in fact just making it up as they go along. Watching a paranoid show is thus about immersing one’s self in an overflow of facts that don’t point anywhere. Indeed, actually pointing somewhere can be a disaster, as evidenced by the way in which Twin Peaks is widely seen to have shot itself in the foot with the revelation of Laura Palmer’s killer.
In The X-Files this relationship with an excess of information is framed specifically in terms of a binary opposition in the main characters. Both are straightforward ideological archetypes, with Mulder being the “believer” and Scully being the “skeptic.” Implicit, then, are that these two roles are essentially indistinguishable from one another. Both are merely different ways of processing the paranoid flood of information. The skeptic recognizes that the paranoid flood of information is contradictory and misleading, and so adopts a default position of doubt. Trust no one, looking for the lie in every piece of information. The believer, on the other hand, recognizes that the truth is out there and so looks for the secret held between the lines of the flood. Both are strategies in pursuit of the same goal: attempts to turn a limitless excess of information into something that is manageable and that leads to a coherent system of knowledge. Both, however, depend on the interminable nature of the flood - the fact that there is always more information to incorporate into a theory. This is not only because they require something to believe or disbelieve, but because the very nature of belief or disbelief requires the pre-existent mastery of large volumes of information so as to contextualize the new information either as red herrings or as a roadmap to the truth.
Because the two paranoid approaches require the continual acquisition of knowledge, paranoia’s mode of discourse is, as Sedgwick observes, “inescapably narrative.” The only thing that paranoia can possibly do is tell its story. This is the one salvation open to paranoia: that it might be understood by someone else. The paranoid mode is described by Sedgwick thusly: “paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.” And so the paranoid mode requires continual reiteration. It is the perfect mode for television in this regard. But since paranoia is not only a mode of storytelling but a mode of reception (hence the skeptic/believer “divide”), it follows that this narrativizing tendency ought apply equally well to the audiences of paranoid television. Which seems to pretty well describe the perpetual engagement and commentary of fandom as well.
This makes some sense. We have previously tied the rising interest in conspiracies, UFOs, and other such things to the deferral of a Cold War apocalypse into an uncertain future. (Paranoia requires its eschatons.) But if we treat fandom as an essentially paranoid mode of engagement then the rise of cult television at the same time makes sense. And the truth is that fandom is paranoid. The analysis that establishes this about the Ian Levine style of fandom is so straight forward as to not be worth rehearsing. But this blog is no better - I unabashedly push a conspiracy theory of Doctor Who from a believer perspective in which the probability of accuracy is consciously made secondary to the question of whether or not we’re producing interesting results. The act of obsessional reading or watching is intrinsically paranoid, related as it is to a willful overflow of information.
But this also gets towards what I have previously described as fandom’s suicidal impulse back in The Deadly Assassin. The conspiracy theory’s desire is to finally express itself such that it is understood, with the irrational yet unshakable belief that if it were to do so it would finally acquire the master narrative that could terminate its endless restatement and shut off the spigot of information. The conspiracy theory seeks its own death. This also seems the inevitable work of fandom, and of the paranoid show. The X-Files cannot reveal the truth because once the truth is no longer out there it is gone and there’s nothing left to say. Similarly, the New Adventures cannot pull the curtain back on the “Cartmel” Masterplan until the end of the line. Lungbarrow is a story that can only be told suicidally.
But again, we are ahead of ourselves. Let’s pull back. The proper paranoid style demands that in lieu of a conclusion I offer scattered clues and hints, some red herrings, to future events. To wit.
1) The paranoid state is one in which the engine of history has broken down, a fact we’ve had established since The Deadly Assassin post nearly a year ago. An essential dualism of Doctor Who is the seemingly whiggish arc of history that the Time Lords represent and the mercurial profusion of alternatives implicit in the Doctor’s travels. While the show broadly sympathizes with the Doctor, it holds back from ever making a firm and unambiguous commitment to his position. The wilderness years, however, mark the point where the balance is irrevocably shattered. The profusion of possible master narratives for Doctor Who in the 1989-2005 gap, coinciding as they do with the disintegration of the idea of a global arc of history (the end of history having been declared in 1989 via an essay by Francis Fukuyama that was as faddish as it was misunderstood), seem to mark the final end of the Time Lords’ position in that dynamic - a fall literalized once the series came back.
2) The most blatantly paranoid period of Doctor Who was of course the base-under-siege phase Troughton era. This was followed, with something approaching historical inevitability, by the Pertwee era, in which the series can broadly be defined as “queered Buddhism.” Given the applicability of Eve Sedgwick to this particular post, it is perhaps worth noting that Sedgwick was one of the most prominent members of the academic school of thought broadly described as “queer theory,” and that the chapter after her bit on paranoia is called “Pedagogy of Buddhism.” I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the similarities or differences between Butler’s “reparative readings” and my redemptive ones.
3) The preceding claim that the Troughton era marked the high point of the program’s paranoia makes sense only if we ignore the degree to which the Pertwee era itself was rampantly paranoid, most obviously in its “gritty realist” stories, and in turn most obviously in Inferno and The Mind of Evil. If we indulge this interpretive hypothesis then it is difficult not to identify the Master specifically as the height of paranoia within the series. The coincidence of his name and the choice of the term “master narrative” to denote the unobtainable object of paranoia’s desire is, of course, carefully engineered felicity, but it is difficult to get around the basic sense of this observation. Consider the way in which the Master’s “surprise” revelations as the villain are not, in fact, surprises but rather the confirmation of a wholly expected secret order of things - “oh, of course, it’s just him.” Consider also the two returns of the Master that we have looked at so far. The link between conspiracy theories and The Deadly Assassin is obvious, but note also that his return in the 1980s coincides perfectly with the portion of the John Nathan-Turner era that descends into unrepentant paranoia.
4) If the paranoid is taken as a sort of death drive we are wise to remember the insights of The Curse of Fenric, whereby it is opposed in some sense by the sex drive. The Pertwee era’s unabashed camp points towards that, as does the unapologetic sentiment with which the series finally comes back, but more broadly, it is very much tempting to map this divide onto the gun/frock distinction, with one side being the gun/death/paranoid side and the other being the frock/sex/ - ah, but here we get the problem. What neurosis or symptom shall we fill in for the sexy frocks? What symptom is it that we want to enjoy there?
5) The Silence, consciously modeled on the Greys of alien abduction lore and debuted in a story steeped in that iconography, are, of course, conspiracy theory monsters - creatures whose very semi-hidden existence is based on the imposition of a secret order of history. But it is perhaps more significant to observe their declared role as the guardians of history - that is, practitioners of the master narrative. Given this it is wholly appropriate that they flit out of memory, literally being an unobtainable understanding. It is also, of course, worth contrasting them with their mirror images, the equally gaze-defined Weeping Angels who, instead of being inaccessible through observation are wholly fixed through observation, but who point not at the horror of an external order but of an internal one: there’s something in your eye.
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