Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 42 (The X-Files, Ghostwatch, Twin Peaks)

(61 comments)

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.

Comments

elvwood 4 years, 10 months ago

I like.

(No, I don't have anything more substantive to add. Why do you ask?)

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5tephe 4 years, 10 months ago

Cute.

(me neither)

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 10 months ago

I can see how your account of the Wilderness Years is starting to come together. There's a destructive self-contradiction in the paranoid perspective. Yes, there's a spigot of continually confusing information spewing out contraries that one has to sort into a single master narrative in order to make sense of one's own existence. But the implicit premise of the paranoid mode is that it's all one conspiracy: all this madness is part of the plan of The Smoking Man or Bob or The Master, or the Illuminati, or Steven Moffat.

In the Virgin Era, the New Adventures is the only official continuation of the show's narrative. After the TV Movie, the unity of the show finally breaks down, as the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel series, the Paul McGann Big Finish audios, and the comics undergoing their renaissance with the Eighth Doctor and Izzy stories all provide multiple narratives for the show. There's a proliferation of information, but there is now no way to make sense of it in the paranoid mode. A conspiracy needs an underlying unity to the flood of contraries. And after 1996, that implicit unity of the official narrative disappears from Doctor Who, because there become multiple incommensurable official narratives.

Russell T Davies literalized this with his still largely unrevealed backstory for the 2005 series: The Time War. Gallifrey and the Time Lords, with their Whiggish view of history is annihilated with them, and time, memory, and continuity become flexible, changeable. Terrance Dicks' conception of the Time Lords as technocrats of super-science even plays into this conception. The Time Lords are the mega-powerful Freemasons of time itself, directing the order of the universe through their mastery of science and technology.

Without them, the Doctor's model of mutually interfering elements of the universe of space and time becomes dominant, and there's no need for strict continuity with the past. Would a young Amy Pond encounter Rose Tyler on a day-trip to London? It no longer makes sense to ask the question. When Davies left, the show began anew: his storylines were wrapped up, and Moffat's began.

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jane 4 years, 10 months ago

Oh but I love it, I love it!

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?

Some sort of manic-depressive bipolar disorder? Dissociative identity disorder? Or maybe the loosey-goosey "schizophrenia." Because if one side looks to a master narrative for its salvation, then surely the other side is looking for the opposite, a proliferation of contradictory and apocryphal narratives that shut the door on the very possibility of "canon."

And yes, I just happened to have something in my eye as I was reading today's post.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 10 months ago

Interestingly, one of the distinctions between Moffat-telling and Davies-telling is that Moffat is far more consciously modelled on the X Files / Lost / Twin Peaks pact with the viewer that there are a series of narrative generated mysteries that will be 'uncovered' by the observant viewer during the unfolding of an ungoing narrative.

This places the viewer in the active position of interpreting a series of small discrete packets of information and attempting to discern an underlying pattern or meta narrative that pieces them together. This makes consuming episodic narratives into a kind of meta-game where elements from all forms of marginal media, including 'real-life', can be brought into increasingly elaborate theorising about the 'true nature' of the story.

This is similar to much online conspiracy 'research' which is not research in the tradition sense of finding things out but assembling pieces of existing knowledge or, increasingly, media to tell a particular story which the individual is already convinced exists. In some ways, in real conspiracy, this is a kind of way of assuming narrative authorship of the world.

For me, Moffat-telling is responding to the prevalence of this mode of fan consumption, sometimes to the detriment of actual narrative story telling. It's a kind of internet age Chekov's gun but one that only really repays a particular form of interaction with narrative. A good example of this was the shock appearance of 'Oswin', a shock only to those involved in the meta-consumption of Doctor Who as both a narrative and an actual real world object.

It also vastly increases the regard/attention given to the author by making her/him the master of a web of clues and hints, becuase rather than empower viewers to come up with own understanding of the narrative, it only allows them to speculate to see if they 'guessed'. Eventually the god-athor will reveal the 'true' meaning of the underlying story and they will either be right or wrong. I think it's a clever, if spiteful, way of enforcing the primacy of authorial intent.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Hmmmmmmmmm. This doesn't quite work for me.

Partially because I don't really feel the whole "paranoia is an unending narrative" thing. I mean, I sort of do - for a truly paranoid mindset, even if you're proven totally right, there's still a lurking horror in your mind that you have to match with a lurking horror in the world. But for a TV show about paranoia, that seems to point to a fairly obvious route that the X-Files didn't take and Twin Peaks... seemed to be trying to take and didn't pan out: Resolve one thread, and introduce the greater threat behind it.

Partially because the whole sex/death binary is way too Freud for me, reflective of a way of thinking about both that outlived its usefulness decades ago. It makes both the driving goal and the entire point of life "to have sex/to have kids". Not only is this personally offensive - I have my own life, ya know - it feels distinctly unfrockish. Surely the frock goal is "to have fun".

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

And I think this is where Dr. Sandifer is going: in our larger culture, the geek desire for everything to be a single unified story gives way to the equally geekish desire for a proliferation of information to be matched by a proliferation of stories you can make out of it.

I suppose, in a sense, that's the real end of history. No more Post-Crisis single Earth; instead, infinite diviersity.

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nimonus 4 years, 10 months ago

"This places the viewer in the active position of interpreting a series of small discrete packets of information and attempting to discern an underlying pattern or meta narrative that pieces them together. This makes consuming episodic narratives into a kind of meta-game where elements from all forms of marginal media, including 'real-life', can be brought into increasingly elaborate theorizing about the 'true nature' of the story."

I think there is a difference, though, between fiction where there actually *is* a master narrative, and one in which the authors themselves end up doing the same thing as the fans - constructing a master narrative by stitching together seemingly random bits of information scattered throughout the series. Phil touches on this in this essay, but I hope he looks at it a bit more when/if he touches on that other cult Sci-Fi property of th 90s which, though even more niche in its appeal, seemed to have had a profound impact on the New Adventures desire to do complex world-building: Babylon 5

In Babylon 5, there was a master narrative. There was a carefully plotted arc set out with a beginning middle and end, before the first word of the first script was written. The pieces of that narrative had to be shuffled around and changed, both because of issues with actors and because things change in the process of writing, and the show was written "live", like Dickens' serial novels. Though it did rely one a few mysteries (what is the hole in Sinclair's mind, who are the shadows, who are the Vorlons) and plenty of conspiracy theories (shadowy forces controlling history, political conspiracies to establish a totalitarian state) it wasn't really focused on the overflow of information, and didn't endlessly defer answers. It told a story, featuring characters who evolved and changed and world that did the same.

Moffatt seems to hedge between the two modes, though given how carefully plotted his stand-alone stories are, I suspect he errs more on the Babylon 5 side rather than the Lost side of this divide.


There is tons of interesting material in this article which deserves mention, particularly calling out the existential terror of having the boundaries of the self invaded by a contaminate. There are tons of interesting places and connections that can springboard off of this. I hope this gets picked up on when we get to Time of the Angels.

And I also hope Phil answers pays off the hint about the gun/death/paranoia frock/sex/? divide . . . (which is to say, I hope there is a master narrative to the blog in the B5 rather than just the Lost mode ;)

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

I came here directly from reading that Sedgwick essay. THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES.

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

Can't wait for the post on The Invisibles...

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

Moffat is far more consciously modelled on the X Files / Lost / Twin Peaks pact with the viewer that there are a series of narrative generated mysteries that will be 'uncovered' by the observant viewer during the unfolding of an ungoing narrative.

Though actually, if you think back to the "Bad Wolf" clues...

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

Great post! I love where you place the Time Lords and the Master on these lines.

When I think about conspiracies and pleasurably paranoid fiction, I can't avoid Robert Anton Wilson, whose Historical Illuminatus Chronicles (and, later, the rest of his Illuminati books) introduced me to or enhanced my interest in all sorts of fabulous things as a teenager. As a result I associate conspiracy fiction not with dread but with fun -- the joyous recombination of history and the potential of human endeavor. Part of the pleasure came from the idea not of an endlessly deferred answer but of an answer, full stop. Conspiracy is the sense that the universe is an ordered place where even if awful things happen, they happen because someone caused them to. This in turn contains the hope that awful things can be _stopped_ with an informed application of force.

This means a destroyed Gallifrey is on the one hand an endorsement of mercurial freedom and on the other an unsettling power vacuum. All hail Discordia, but on the other hand, she's pretty scary if she's not on your side, and by her very nature she's on nobody's side.

I think I'm going to have to go back and read your Pertwee entries from the beginning (maybe I should wait for the book!) to understand what you're getting at with this "queered Buddhism" stuff. I get the Buddhism stuff, but queered? Are you sure?

Finally, while I think I know what that AIDS activist was driving at, I'm not sure I agree. I certainly don't "know" that there's a conspiracy with the resources and ruthlessness to engineer a virus intended to target gay people and Africans, and if that means I'm woefully underinformed I'd like to correct that. And if we knew who they were, as opposed to just reasonably suspecting that such a conspiracy might well exist knowing what we know about the world, it's not inconceivable that raiding their labs might help with engineering a cure. Saying "we already suspect that forces are trying to kill us, and it's a long shot that it would make a material difference if this were engineered as opposed to evolving naturally" is not quite the same as "we know who they are and here are all their notes," is it?

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 10 months ago

For me, as an interested viewer, the "Bad Wolf" things weren't clues in the sense that Moffat's hanging artifacts have been. Contrast the 'Silence Will Fall' / Cracks in Time stuff with the Bad Wolf / Torchwood stuff and you see that the former are very much dangled as significant things while the latter are just kind of 'there': The stories that finally reveal them would still work even if you miss the hints. The Moffat artifacts don't neccessarily contribute to the story that they're in but are foregrounded in the way that significant objects in point-and-click adventures twinkle when you mouse-over them. The RTD hints aren't vital to the unfolding of the stories being told, whereas the Moffat artifacts absolutely are. They're more like the conspiracy arc stuff in the X-Files in that certain future stories don't really make sense unless they flashback or explain the significance of certain 'clues' in previous episodes.

For me, the finest use of this in the X-Files was the episodes where Martin Landau's character tells Mulder (and the audience) they've been sold a pup by swallowing all of these conspiracy ideas and piecing together the alien conspiracy and that they have all been planted to distract from the actual political and geopolitical wrong doings of post war US governments.

I absolutely have to share Richard Hofsteder's Essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/conspiracy_theory/the_paranoid_mentality/the_paranoid_style.html

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Ah! That was the thing I was thinking of - not all conspiracies are paranoid. The desire for a greater all-encompassing order to the world can come of things other than fear.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 10 months ago

The opposite of gun/death/paranoid would be frock/sex/ambivalence.

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

I agree that they're different, but at the time they felt like something more Moffatty. I was let down by the Bad Wolf "solution" precisely because I was expecting them to add up to something more.

Don't get me started on Hofstadter.

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

I get the Buddhism stuff, but queered?

Anything glam has been queered.

Speaking of Robert Anton Wilson, and since this post is (partly) about The X-Files, I should mention "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is one of the most Robert-Anton-Wilsonian hours ever broadcast on network television. It also embodies the alternative that Jane alludes to above: the "proliferation of contradictory and apocryphal narratives."

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daibhid-c 4 years, 10 months ago

Don't have much to add except that I was one of those who watched Ghostwatch on first broadcast. My recollection is that I started out assuming it was a genuine documentary, as to start with there was nothing to suggest it wasn't (the banter between Radio 1's Mike Smith and his real-life partner Blue Peter's Sarah Greene was a nice touch; clearly setting this in Cosy BBC Documentary world, like a spooky Pebble Mill at One).

When the "supernatural" events started occuring, I initially freaked out, before realising "Oh, wait, the whole thing's a gag." But there was definitely that moment where I freaked out.

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John Nor 4 years, 10 months ago

"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."

It is definitely interesting, and that is a good summary of the blog.

Regarding two strands of what you've written:

"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"

and

"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"...

I will add there's a curious echo between The X-Files and Doctor Who of the "Greys" ongoing plotline unravelling the central mystery of the programme (the latter programme's titular question).

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 10 months ago

The "Bad Wolf" resolution was certainly a let-down, but it's not in the same league as the whole "Rose will die" prophecy in Season 2. Obviously, your mileage will vary, and Moffat certainly sailed to close to this with Season 6, but to mind the biggest difference between the two writers as regards ongoing plots/prophecies is that Davies didn't strike me as caring whether or not his resolutions worked on their own terms.

Rose being declared dead, the Doctor regenerating into himself. Those don't strike me as remotely satisfying resolutions, so much as ways to get out of corners he's painted himself into in order to generate buzz.

I tend to think Dr Sandifer slightly overplays his hand regarding the foolishness in viewing cliffhangers (even series-long cliffhangers, like "What's going to happen to Donna?") as actual potential sources of permanent horrible woe to our protagonists, but, even were I to grant the theory in its entirety, I'd say Davies was too often a cheap pusher of sound and fury, and his resolutions to these moments little better than those Flash Gordon rewrites that so enraged Annie Wilkes.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 10 months ago

"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."

That's debatable. Or at least, it's debatable in the specifics of how they shot themselves in the foot. Was it because the identity of Laura's killer cause the paranoid narrative to collapse? Or because forcing Lynch to do it caused him to lose interest and all but abandon the show, with Frost unable to hold it together on his own?

Given that both happened, I think it's difficult to unpick the two. The closest I can offer by way of case study here is the Danish original of The Killing - a show which owes a great deal to Twin Peaks - which divided it's two seasons into discrete cases, without losing its audience. Compare that to the American version, which tried to spin one case out over two years and was widely disliked, and there's at least some evidence that the strength of the show-runners counts for more than the resolution of major ongoing plot points.

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 10 months ago

Yeah, me too. I switched it on after it had been going about ten minutes and had no reason initially to believe it wasn't for real. I love horror films but that's the only time I've been properly freaked out. Well, after the age of about six, anyway.

Meanwhile, on the subject of Greys, Paul Cornell's short story "The Greys" from Interzone is interesting. He comes to the conclusion that they are symbolic of Western liberal guilt, that the imagery comes from things like aborted foetuses and starving Ethiopians etc. I bet that story went down reeeeeal well with the Interzone readership of the time...

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

The bigger problem, I think, was the media hype that defined Twin Peaks as a show about "Who killed Laura Palmer?" in the first place As a fan during the original broadcasts, I always thought the identity of her murderer was beside the point, and I know I wasn't alone in believing tis.

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

Sorry -- "this," not "tis."

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 10 months ago

I only got to watch it long after broadcast (though remarkably, no-one ever told me who did the deed), and my interest was definitely in solving the case, though this is a fundamental part of my own nature rather than anything else.

That said, I agree that the precise nature of the ad campaign/hype caused its own problems, though those I think could have been avoided if the second season had been structured and/or sold differently.

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jane 4 years, 10 months ago

Yes, ambivalence is good, but it's not exactly on the scale of neurosis or symptom the good Dr Phil was asking for. But something like polyphrenia -- ambivalence taken to the extreme -- would slot in nicely, even mirroring the trait of hearing voices.

:)

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

Anything glam has been queered.

Hmm, OK. I'm beginning to think this is going to be a victory of "interesting" over "accurate" as far as I'm concerned, but since I adore glam, queerness, and the Pertwee years, I'll have to catch up with that era of this blog (I got here late) and hope to be convinced. I'd certainly like to see it that way.

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jane 4 years, 10 months ago

On the other hand, the juxtaposition of sex and death is apt if the experience of death is on the order of sexual bliss. The look on Amy's face, after she and Rory jumped, is rather suggestive of this interpretation.

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Froborr 4 years, 10 months ago

Okay, I gave up on X-Files somewhere in the second season; are you telling me that they actually established that the whole "alien conspiracy" thing was a cover-up to distract people from actual secret activities of the U.S. government? Do you happen to know if this is before or after they declassified the papers that showed that's exactly what happened in Roswell? (Late 1999, IIRC).

Frankly, I find Moffat's resolutions less satisfying, *because* they're built up to more, and inevitably fail to live up to the build-up. Let's Kill Hitler and Wedding of River Song were both terrible let-downs in this respect.

I mean, the Rose death thing was a let-down, too, but not because of any failure of execution. It was simply that nothing would have satisfied me as a deserved ending for Rose short of her being damned to an eternity in the deepest pits of Hell, locked in a small room with no one to talk to except Adric for the rest of time.

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Froborr 4 years, 10 months ago

I think you're missing the point of the paranoid narrative, at least as I understand the OP. "Proving" the claim is never the point; the idea of the conspiracy is already "known." The only question is how deep the conspiracy goes, and the answer is always "deeper than we thought yesterday." That *can* mean "resolve this thread and discover the deeper thread that lies behind it," or it can mean "the threads just keep multiplying and tangling further." Either approach is workable, though the latter is a lot harder to keep straight.

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

I agree the identity of the murderer was beside the point AND I wanted to know anyway. I'm frankly over unsolved mysteries, I don't agree that they're more powerful or rich or compelling or whatever, and I found the whole thing more chilling once I found out what happened to her. Your mileage might vary, but that's how it worked for me.

I think I understand the point of view that says it's more important to raise questions than to answer them, but honestly I also think it's MUCH easier and frankly a little chickenshit. I'm at the point with fiction where I want the author to at least try to answer the questions she raises, and even if I don't like or agree with the answers, I've gotten something out of the experience I couldn't have gotten on my own.

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Froborr 4 years, 10 months ago

What I love about the Silence is that they are both the ultimate agent of narrative collapse *and* the ultimate retcon tool. Look at the second part of the Day of the Moon two-parter, specifically the scene of Amy alone in the orphanage. The number of marks on her body increases far more than is possible in the time elapsed, which means the Silence have successfully erased part of the scene from *the viewer's* memory.

That means ANY story, past or future, can have a Silent lurking between frames, altering our memories of the show itself. *Any* inconsistency in a past story can now be addressed by saying a Silent did it; but at the same time, we can no longer trust the events on the screen. The camera itself is now an unreliable narrator; how can TV storytelling survive?

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Jesse 4 years, 10 months ago

I found the whole thing more chilling once I found out what happened to her

Oh, I wasn't opposed to solving the mystery, and I agree it was a significant part of the series. I just never thought the show was "about" the mystery, as opposed to being about this strange town & dreamscape & surreal genre mash-up.

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Tommy 4 years, 10 months ago

Whoah that's a bit harsh.....

....on Adric.

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Tommy 4 years, 10 months ago

I have to say, I do find the X Files to have dated far better than most 90's sci-fi fare (and also I feel I'm at a better age to appreciate it now than I was back then). And from what I remember, it was a show that attracted a non-sci-fi audience because for all the obfuscation and loose ends, they were drawn to the chemistry between Mulder and Scully, whether the dry humour or sexual tension, or just the way that the bond between the female and the fantasist is one that people just respond to.

"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."

I actually wish Lungbarrow had been televised. The more I think about it, the more the attempts of Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis to build up a new mystery, and effectively contrive a new past for the Doctor, end up ringing a bit false and desperate. Lungbarrow would have been the missing piece that justified it, and explained exactly how the Doctor could have had a past behind a past, and indeed made sense of the sporatic differences in competence of his incarnations, and resolved that question of whether the Doctor is a master or a learning apprentice, by proving him to be effectively both.

And frankly, I don't see why the story of Doctor Who even has to be half-done there. I don't think this revelation would have killed the mystery or the show, it'd have generated more speculation and mythology (which was sorely needed after the Saward era had drove a long stake through the show's hero's journey myth repeatedly), and made it more plausible than a few unsubtle cryptic 'i know something you don't know' hints.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

I'm not saying that that's how paranoia works; I'm saying that that's how a narrative based on paranoia could work, in a way that would be way less frustrating to the audience than the constant non-resolutions of the X-Files were.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

I remember reading there was a hastily-slapped-on "this is all fiction" thing at the very beginning, but I'm sure that was easy to miss.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

"I think I understand the point of view that says it's more important to raise questions than to answer them, but honestly I also think it's MUCH easier and frankly a little chickenshit. I'm at the point with fiction where I want the author to at least try to answer the questions she raises, and even if I don't like or agree with the answers, I've gotten something out of the experience I couldn't have gotten on my own."

Yes. Bleh. I think neverending mysteries went out of style at the same time Wolverine's quest for his past in X-Men went stale.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

I definitely disagree. While I liked Lungbarrow, the revelations didn't past the test: they weren't as interesting as the possibilities I came up with myself.

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ferret 4 years, 10 months ago

my vote:

frock/sex/madman(in a box)

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jane 4 years, 10 months ago

I love unreliable narrators, because it's an invitation to dig deep into my own take, my own interpretation.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 10 months ago

I always think of the reason Roman Polanski didn't show what Rosemary's baby looked like. Studio people wanted him to show it, but he was adamant that it would be scarier for them just to see Mia Farrow freaking out about the baby's eyes, and their imaginations would fill in the rest better than any effects would.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 10 months ago

In terms of Cornell and the Greys, his currently running comic series Saucer Country is also an obvious thing to point to.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

I vote for that one!

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Anton B 4 years, 10 months ago

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Anton B 4 years, 10 months ago

What would a ‘paranoid series’ Doctor Who be like? Might it not gesture toward the ‘anti-Moffat’ approach one feels is overdue? Moffat stumbles when he attempts paranoia by giving us the reveal too soon, (sometimes even before the question), confusing plot opacity with mystery. For instance we didn’t care how the Doctor was going to Timey Wimey (a mystery busting phrase if ever there was one) himself out of his own death at the hands of the impossible astronaut because we knew that without the Doctor there is no show. We did care that Amy and Rory were leaving, but Moffat mistook that for engagement in just how it was going to happen. He is confusing the traditional Doctor Who ‘cliff-hanger ending’ where it was never in doubt that our hero would survive, with the delayed continuation of a ‘master narrative’. This is the opposite of realising that ‘who killed Laura Palmer’ (itself a meta-echo of ‘who shot JR?’) or ‘who are hiding the aliens?’ or ‘what is this mysterious island’ is not really the point. In our show the eponymous mystery is already there. ‘Doctor Who?’ Moffat, by consistently fumbling his attempts at paranoid story-telling is going out of his way to remove that mystery. Having said that I would like to know what would happen if a Silent looked at a Weeping Angel.

Phillip, I'd have liked to have read more of your analysis of Twin Peaks. I'm particularly intrigued by the way it (and most other Lynch movies) mash-up genres in much the way Doctor Who at its best juxtaposes narratives. In the case of Twin Peaks - detective procedural, psychological horror, (so far so Hitchcock)Sci-fi fantasy and yes spiritualism/Buddhism.

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SpaceSquid 4 years, 10 months ago

That's an interesting reference, because I actually think a lot of the most egregious examples of mysterious plot developments in the X books of the mid '90s (which were generated far faster than they could be resolved) can be attributed to the success of Twin Peaks.

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Froborr 4 years, 10 months ago

Well, I never said *Adric* can't talk to anyone else. =P

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Froborr 4 years, 10 months ago

True, but in text fiction there is (usually) no filter between the narrator (reliable or not) and the reader. The narrative on the page is the narrative, even if we have to make some effort to construct the underlying story.

With TV, however, what we see through the camera is all we get. You can put an unreliable narrator between the story and the camera, and of course we must always be aware of the how the camera frames and selects its images, but if we cannot trust that the images on the screen are the content of the episode, what is there to interpret?

I don't see this as a bad thing, by the by. As I said, it's what I love about the Silence--they throw the underlying assumptions of television watching into utter chaos.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Good point - much like the proliferation of neverending will-they-or-won't-they romances were given a kick by Moonlighting.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

"Might it not gesture toward the ‘anti-Moffat’ approach one feels is overdue?"

One may feel, but I don't.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Hm, that was a bit snappish. Let me expand: I think a style of storytelling where the main goal is being "not X" is going to generally be inferior to one that has its own ideas that it's going for - as Moffat definitely does. And that goes doubly if "anti-Moffat" means going back to X-Files-style neverending mysteries.

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Anton B 4 years, 10 months ago

Right. I tried various different phrases before settling on both 'anti-Moffat'and 'one feels'. The latter chosen to precisely show I didn't expect everyone to agree. I'd like to clarify that I've nothing against the present show-runner and have actually enjoyed the latest five episodes more than some commentators both here and elsewhere. What I was suggesting though is that it's probably time for a change. Maybe 'post-Moffat' would have been a better phrase but I was also attempting to show that what Moffat does is often the antithesis of that which Phillip was positing as a style of paranoid narrative.

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

I might have different feelings about Lungbarrow if I read it now; back then it felt like yet another conception of Gallifrey that didn't square with the rest and I couldn't take it seriously. The sense that it was lifted from Gormenghast didn't help; it's one thing to do that for a single story, and another to lay a foundation for the series that way. I'm sure we'll get to talk about all that soon enough. I agree, though, that if the show isn't interesting after you reveal the mystery, it wasn't interesting to begin with.

As for Rosemary's baby: I'd agree with that decision in that case, partly because the whole story is rooted in "is this really happening or am I as delusional as they say?" and not seeing the baby is the perfect topper there. In general, though, I always have to object to the idea that my imagination is always scarier than that of a special effects artist. That seems rather insulting to the artist and her abilities.

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

I know this isn't exactly what you two are talking about, but my ideal post-Moffat approach would be "meaningful stories that are about the people and places being visited rather than the characters doing the visiting." That is, I don't really need Doctor Who to be a mystery/paranoia show; it's the perfect anthology show, so let's take advantage of it. If we ever had a pure historical again I'd be over the moon, which is not something I ever thought I'd say when I was 12.

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encyclops 4 years, 10 months ago

Incidentally, would you say that Moffat's Sherlock is a paranoia narrative? I hope I'm not spoiling it for anybody if I point out that almost every mystery so far, if not all of them, have been traced back to some conspiracy on some level that's bigger than a single criminal committing a single crime.

As such I find it a little frustrating. The show derives a lot of humor from the degree to which "ordinary" crimes and mysteries bore Sherlock, and clearly this is how the show feels about them as well. We get montage-style glimpses of what could conceivably have been rather fun and moving episodes of a series that has room for more than three stories per season. It reminds me of the sort of glimpses we get in episodes like "A Good Man Goes to War" and "The Power of Three" of stories that might have been (Madame Vastra vs. Jack the Ripper, Amy & Rory vs. Henry VIII) and probably would have been even more entertaining than the actual episodes themselves.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Haven't seen yet, myself - it's near the top of my ever-growing pile of Stuff To Watch.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 10 months ago

Anton: That is perfectly fair!

encyclops: That sounds interesting indeed.

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Flynn 4 years, 10 months ago

Correct me if I'm misreading it, but that sounds more in line with what Bidmead was doing in his year on the program- stories where the worlds visited were an integral part of how the story functioned and progressed.

In which case, heck yes- I'd love more of that in future series.

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Anton B 4 years, 10 months ago

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 10 months ago

Encyclops, your model for the show is pretty much exactly the one I've been clamoring for well, forever.

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