This is actually the third and final part of a series of posts I began in 2012… which is pushing it, even for me. Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2. You don’t need to read them to understand what is below. While we’re talking about belated entries… I am planning some more Tricky Dicky and (unexpectedly) more Minnesota Normal. Be patient, my darlings. I finished Forward, to the Past! didn’t I?
The two televised Doctor Who stories which depict the First World War both approach it, as it were, from an angle, rather than head-on. In 'The War Games' (1969), we see characters who are ordinary soldiers (both British and German) who've been abducted from the front in 1914-18, brainwashed, and placed in a simulacrum of the war, where they are commanded by alien impostors masquerading as representatives of the military top brass of both sides. 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood' (2007) is set in England in 1913, just before the outbreak of the war, with 'flashforwards' to No Man's Land during the coming conflict, and an epilogue set at a Remembrance Day ceremony many years afterwards. An important secondary character called Tim Latimer is shown as a pupil at a public school before the war, a soldier during the war, and an elderly veteran after it.
The two stories are both highly regarded by fans - in many ways rightly so. Both set themselves the task of 'saying something' about war. The later story is more openly concerned with examining historical, political and moral issues, though it strives to find a balanced and non-partisan position. The strategy of the writer, Paul Cornell, seems to have been to present the issues in a dramatic rather than a didactic way, by allowing various viewpoints to arise through the personalities of the characters. The earlier story is more coy about its historical and political concerns, being seemingly content to present itself as an adventure story with a straightforward moral. However, it also happens to be a slyly-radical, late-sixties, anti-imperialist parable. To understand how this happened, you only have to glance at the dates. It was written and produced in the aftermath of ‘68, the biggest global explosion of protest and insurgence in the latter-half of the twentieth century, a lot of which was focused on the Vietnam War. There is no straightforward, mechanistic, deterministic relationship between politics out in the real world and the politics of Doctor Who stories (or indeed any other stories) but there are certainly relations of influence. But I won’t belabour this point as it is a pretty fundamental assumption underlying both my own ‘work’ and Phil’s entire Eruditorum project, and a point that I suspect most readers of this site are already happy to accept, at least as a marker. (The question of exactly how the relation works is one over which a great deal of ink… and even some blood… has been spilt, and far cleverer people than I have weighed in on it and been unable to reach satisfying conclusions, so we’re not likely to clear it up here and now.)
Interestingly, the two stories contain radically different conceptions of warfare, its roots and its political and moral significance. As noted, ‘The War Games’ takes a distinctly late-sixties ‘radical’ view. (I put ‘radical’ in scare-quotes because I don’t want to suggest that the programme itself is radical in any meaningful material/political sense, just that it adopts, for those ten weeks, a viewpoint inflected with the radical politics of the age in which it was produced.) The war is run by a class of alien warmongers disguised as officers, who have more in common with each other than they have with their troops. The troops are in the same boat, even if they don’t know it… which they don’t until they recover from the ways in which their minds are fiddled-with. They gradually come to realise that their real enemies are their bosses, not each other … or at least some of them do. This more advanced minority forms a vanguard which rebels, and resists the warmongering of the alien officer-class. The many wars in history are actually all one war fought by rulers against the ruled, and the goals are not moral (as is claimed) but thoroughly cynical. Conquest is the aim, and the soldiers are mere pawns on a massive chessboard. And so on.
It’s far from perfect, if we start to seriously pull its politics apart… which we kind-of have to do if we take the central metaphor seriously. It’s far too conspiratorial in its depiction of how ruling classes collude. It’s ahistorical in the way it fails to distinguish between pre-modern and modern history. It’s reductionist in the way it substitutes ‘mind control’ for ideology. The revolutionary impulses of the bulk of the story collapse into a muddled and compromised reformism once we get to the last couple of episodes. And it misses that some wars have political content beyond the interests of the ruling classes heading them, i.e. Harper, the black man, fighting for the North in the American Civil War. For all that though, it cuts deep. The struggle in terms of the strange, as I always say.
By contrast, 'Human Nature' / 'The Family of Blood', made in the years following the invasion of Iraq and written by a left-liberal who supported it on the grounds that lefties and liberals should support deposing tyrants, is, despite the evident intent to present a nuanced picture, thoroughly imbued with an ideological attachment to the hawkish liberal doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention'. I'd argue that it also ends up as a default-exculpatory depiction of the British Empire, and a narrative of liberal values threatened by an invading, fanatical ‘other’. It’s far from a simple propaganda piece. As noted in the first part of this series, the story makes many of the right noises about the horror of war, and the social hypocrisy and cynicism which accompanies it. Yet the deep meaning of the story is that England must stand firm, and ideally united, against foreign imperialism. This isn’t reason to discard the story (as with ‘The Zygon Inv’, I think it’s very well done) but it’s an interesting matter to peer into.
John Smith teaches the boys in his classes about the Allies fighting Napoleon and the relief of Mafeking. This is the history of the British empire as a moral and a defensive force. Napoleon the dictator, opposed by Britain and her allies. Of course, no mention is made of the fact that Napoleon rose partly on the back of his record fighting against the unprovoked aggression of European monarchist states against revolutionary France. Nor is the empire-building of the Napoleonic wars compared with the empire-building of, say, Britain... which is tacitly assumed to possess the right to steal and run other people's countries. Later, Mafeking is namechecked. Mafeking was another vital part of the ideology of British moral and physical heroism in the face of aggression. Baden-Powell, his men and the people of Mafeking, under siege by the Boers, finally relieved and saved after 217 days of brave refusal to surrender. Naturally, it isn't mentioned by Smith that Baden-Powell chose to hole up in Mafeking, knowing full well that it would probably lead to a siege. Nor is it mentioned that, despite it supposedly being agreed on both sides that they were fighting a 'white man's war', B-P wasn't above using natives as bullet fodder. Nor is it mentioned that the British had no right to be in South Africa in the first place; that they were there to stop Boer independence from depriving them of South African gold and diamonds. Nor is there any mention of the concentration camps into which Lord Kitchener (he of the poster) had Boer civilians corralled and left to starve. Nor is there any acknowledgement that the Boers were themselves the descendants of settlers who had invaded and stolen 'their' country from the original inhabitants. British Imperialism, in short, is left out of the picture. There’s no conspiracy of silence going on. It’s left out because it is not relevant to the story. Smith tells the story that he and his culture see as history. But it's interesting to ponder the content of that, and to remark upon the story's silence about it. However inevitable that silence is, it's still silence.
In this narrative, the one the story depicts without counter-narrative, British imperialism is not understood as imperialism, or if it is understood as imperialism then it is understood as the good imperialism. And modern humanitarian interventionism is predicated on exactly the same kind of moral relativism that sees the French or German empires are dastardly, while the British empire represents progress and liberty, etc... It’s important to note the age of the defence of empire on the grounds that it brings progress, democracy, freedom, liberalisation. This is not a new idea, and it has been trotted out by almost every empire that has ever existed. As indeed it is tacitly accepted in John Smith’s classroom.
And a teacher like Smith in a school of that sort wouldn't have gone into these complexities, or taught anything which failed to reflect the ideology of the British empire. Empires were bad when they were French or German. British ones were moral and courageous and honourable. British officers went to South Africa to protect British settlers from the persecution of Boers, not to enforce British control of South African wealth. "Tribesmen of the dark continent" were, indeed, beneath notice except as target practice. The story is quite right to show the boys being taught in this way.
However, the rest of the story fails to add any context to Smith's version of history (beyond the vague, lefty-liberal complaint about the effects of, and attitudes surrounding, warfare that I went into in the first part of this series). British imperialism vanishes from the story just as surely as it has vanished from Smith's classroom. The Empire becomes a background detail, a series of place names. It forms part of the mindset of the various characters, which is all well and good, but as sincerely as their viewpoints are represented, nothing in the story challenges these viewpoints, directly or indirectly. The story is thus 'balanced' in the same way as a mainstream news report. It honestly relays the opinions of certain people but simply relays them without examination. It allows debate but keeps that debate within certain limits. It depicts a conflict of views without providing wider context.
Similarly de-contextualised is the scene where the schoolboys gun down the Family's army of scarecrows. We are clearly being invited to see the future of the boys themselves pre-enacted in this moment. We see the boys unwittingly practicing for the killing they will do at the front. The scarecrows thus become the animated cousins of the bucket-headed, potato-sack dummies that the boys were earlier using for target practice. As the scarecrows fall in the hail of bullets, it's like a foreshadowing of what awaits the boys at the front. And yet, the scarecrows are attacking the school in an entirely unprovoked act of aggression.
It's interesting that the hymn chosen as background is 'To Be A Pilgrim', which is about the need for the valiant to fight against disasters and foes that try to block their ascent to righteousness. A 'humanitarian intervention' hymn. Perhaps a more ironic choice might have been 'Onward Christian Soldiers', though 'To Be A Pilgrim' certainly suggests the attitude and asserted intent of many who advocate the necessity of waging moral war for Christian civilisation against irredeemable monsters.
Can the Family of Blood be read as a reflection of British imperialism, and thus as a force that confronts Britain with its own imperialist values? They do, after all, invade, kill, attack, appropriate bodies and attempt to seize the Doctor for their own advantage. Their attitude to humanity reeks of callous contempt. To them, the humans are essentially... well, 'unarmed tribesmen'. These are all traits that suggest the imperial attitude. Indeed, it is later said that their victory would enable them to spread across the universe, implying that conquest is their ultimate goal.
Well, perhaps. But notice the contrast between Tim Liberal's moral objection to shooting tribesmen because they're armed only with spears and the depiction of the Family's aggression as wrong in its own terms. It is wrong because they are here where they have no business being here. Joan herself makes the point about whether the Doctor is why they came here. Our imperial warfare may be questioned on particular grounds (are we playing fair?) whereas the imperial warfare of the alien other may be question in universal terms (they have no right to come here). (Parenthetically, to even ask the question 'did the British honour moral codes of behaviour in their empire?' is to satirize oneself.)
If we read the Family as imperialists, then we instantly see the British - as a whole, all class distinctions aside - under attack by them. If they are an imperialism, they are an un-British imperialism. They are an imperialism which has attacked Britain. They do not work as a reflection of British imperialism but as a validation of it by default. Here the story fits right into the mainstream cultural representation of imperialism: represent forms of imperialism which threaten 'us' as bad things, don't represent 'our' imperialism as imperialism at all - even when the parallels between 'our' behaviour and 'theirs' are so striking as to be unavoidable. Assume that 'our' behaviour simply is not imperialism, invasion, aggression, terrorism, whatever. It can't be. It's us doing it. we're the good guys - the democrats, the liberals, the people concerned about human rights... because we say we are - so, obviously, it's absurd to characterise our behaviour as being imperialist, aggressive or terroristic. To even call it any of those things is to be rhetorical, propagandistic, etc. Consequently, we think we can reasonably talk about the threat posed to 'us' - the heavily armed nations that go around invading other countries - by relatively poor little states with nothing comparable in the way of weaponry and little-or-no record of aggression. This is the self-evident common sense of mainstream discourse.
Of course, it may be possible to see a critique of British imperialism imminent in the very reversal. British people, at a historical moment when the Empire was nigh at its height, resisting an aggressive, imperialistic invader. While there is an inescapable irony in this, it's a blank and unconscious irony that is imported into the text rather than found within it. The same irony is to be found in countless films where the representatives of Western states engaged (out in the real world) in military aggression play the role of victims attacked by crews of terrorists. But there is no coherent critique discernible in such representations. In order to see the irony of the reversal, you need context that is not provided. And this is true for ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’... probably, in fairness, because Cornell is, in line with his stated tastes, trying to dramatically demonstrate the dynamics of a conflict.
There's no real sense in which the Headmaster is confronted by his own values when Son of Mine taunts him. The way that Son of Mine takes an explicitly sneering attitude towards the values of the Headmaster tends to shore up the Headmaster's moral authority when replying. He becomes a validated figure precisely because his deeper integrity - when under attack - seems to be revealed beneath superficial flaws. The Headmaster - and, by implication, the values he represents - are powerfully validated by the fact that they are attacked by an aggressive invader who explicitly questions them, no matter that he may have earned some tuts from us earlier. His tough awareness of the horrors of war, coupled with his resistance to the attacks of enemies and his humane concern for a little girl in danger, leads to a positive impression, bolstered by the way he is murdered. The neutral dramatic demonstration collapses into an emotive validation, and all it takes is an invading 'Them' to throw him into a new light. His resistance to the Family of Blood suggests strongly that the ideology he espouses, the ideology of British imperialism, possesses the moral force of self defence. Imperialism is thus depicted as capable of moral nobility in the light of an aggressive 'other'. Despite the attempt at a non-partisan, dramatic demonstration of the issues, the end result is an apologia for empire.
Again, I wouldn't want to claim that this represented anything qualitatively new. On the contrary, vast swathes of Doctor Who are predicated upon the idea of the aggressive Other attacking 'us'. Ironically enough, the UNIT era - which Cornell has criticised in the past - is the exemplar of this approach within Who, though it was also key to the Innes Lloyd years of bases under siege. In the UNIT era, Britain - personified in the bluff, jingoistic, thoroughly-establishment figure of the Brigadier - was always being attacked from without by the alien Other. Whatever the Brigadier's faults, they usually paled in comparison to the attacking outsiders, thus validating the establishment and hierarchy he represented. Militarism stood excused, even championed. He may have been a figure of fun sometimes, the butt of jokes or swipes at the expense of his 'old fashioned' attitudes, but we needed him. In those days, during the winding down of the struggles of the 60s, the Brig was made palatable by being part of the U.N. rather than the British government per se, and by frequently being in conflict with 'the Minister', yet even this fits into a ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative. Note how the overall left-liberal inflection of the Letts era totally fails to clash with a depiction of an enlightened, heroic military, fending off existential threats to England. It can easily be integrated, by the inclusion of some evil corporations, Tory-types, ambitious bureaucrats, and bluff public school buffers, and by singling them out as archaic problems that need sorting so that the rest of ‘us’ can get on, or by putting them in the way of action to combat bigger threats to democracy and community. This syndrome in the narrative culture industries is really just an expression of the deep truth that left-liberal reformism is a buttress to the capitalist system, not a challenge to it. And you have to remember that the background historical context to the Brigadier and UNIT is, once again, the Vietnam War. They are as much a product of that context as is ‘The War Games’. The relation between politics and art does not necessarily imply a reaction in either direction.
I used the word ‘community’ just now. There are few ideas more likely to dilute any kind of inquiry into the real nature of society than the idea that there are such entities as the ‘national community’. The moment Orwell starts blithering about Britain being “a family with the wrong members in charge”, he’s lost it. We can actually see this happen in ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’. If the Family are to function as any kind of critique of British values, we must assume that Britain is a kind of organic whole, comprised of a unified identity across ages, classes and sexes. This is, once again, entirely in line with mainstream ideas about the 'national community' and/or 'national identity', culturalist ideas with highly reactionary connotations that have been steadily imported back into mainstream discourse in recent decades, despite their being code for notions beloved of hard-right-wingers. The decision to have the Family inhabit just this disparate cross-section makes it hard to see them as a reflection of real-world British imperialism, since real-world imperialism is a policy of the ruling class and a property of the system they run. It may be administered by the fathers of boys like Baines, but it isn't the concern of women like Jenny. To see the Family as reflecting British imperialism is to imply collective social guilt.
For all that the story shows many of the inequities and bigotries of life in England, 1913, it also shows England, 1913, under collective attack. Baines and Jenny both become killed/enslaved by the family. The appeal is for everyone to put petty (class) differences aside in the interests of national unity against a far worse exterior threat.
Even if the Family of Blood does intimate a critique of Britain as a 'bloody family' - and I think they do so only as an ironic reversal which haunts a text which otherwise forecloses upon such notions - then this only generalises responsibility. It implies that all levels of British society are equally implicated in some kind of free-floating and unspecified villainy, something nebulous and abstract like 'aggression'. It ignores the class divisions within British society, implying the real existence of a general, national character that links British men and women of various ages and classes. In short, as a critique (if that is indeed what it is), it is very much in line with certain ideas that liberalism and conservatism have in common. We have a national interest and a national character, from which inhabitants of this country may diverge and with which they should be encouraged to align. In the positive form, this notion of the national character simply matches up with the absolution of the nation implied by the light questioning inherent in the Downton Abbey syndrome (see the first part of this series). In the negative form, it reifies, depoliticizes, generalizes, and maybe even biologizes the blame for imperialism and war. ‘We’ carry the seeds of violence within all of ‘us’. This is why wars happen. Because 'we' start them. In this view, the First World War is started equally by the potentates of Europe and by the crowds of people who ended up being obliterated or maimed or widowed by it. This is... well, human nature. The title of the first episode may be seen as lending a certain support to this reductionist, biologically-determinist idea. Admittedly, the Family are posited as an alien force that invade and corrupt humanity, but in such scenarios the question of compatibility always arises. They can do what they do because they are compatible with us. They get into us, they use us, they personate as us, they tessellate with us, they behave like us, they reflect us, their project leads to a direct pre-enactment of our own future actions (the scene with the massacre of scarecrows). They represent, as monsters do, aspects of us.
You might well be feeling sorry for Cornell at this point, thinking "poor guy can't win". And I'd agree with you. This is categorically not an attack on Cornell. He's no more in full control of his own metaphors than any author.
There is, of course, a sense in which the domestic subjects of an imperialist power derive benefits from imperialism (though the factual basis of this idea in respect of the British Empire has been cast into serious doubt), but this ignores the fact that they are also dominated and exploited by the same domestic capitals and the same state apparatus that generates imperialism - let alone the fact that no exploited population ever has any chance of liberating itself while it stands in an exploitative relationship to populations abroad. Marx noted, for instance, that the British working class could never liberate itself while remaining divided from the Irish working class by conditions of inequality generated by imperial domination.
Even so, I'm stretching things above. I don't think the Family of Blood actually work as critique, even as an indictment of collective national complicity with imperialism. They are far too much the alien force attacking 'us'. The collective national identity is implied, but it is exonerated - rulers and all - by the Family's attack upon it.
A similar thing happens in 'The Horror of Fang Rock' (1977), another story in which British people, in the early years of the twentieth century, are attacked by a protean alien force - a Rutan - that can impersonate them and which, in its natural form, appears to emanate green light. In this story, the Rutan seems to be a manifestation of the nebulous electrified military modernity that the character Reuben so resents and fears. It seems permeated with technology through its affinity with electricity. It uses the generator, speaks of its ability to shape-shift as a "technique" and leaves bits of its own alien tech all over the place, including a "signal modulator" that chimes thematically with all the concentration on the lighthouse's wireless telegraph, and indeed with the lighthouse itself. It also espouses an ideology of empire and militarism, and uses an arrogant tone of snobbery with regards to the Sontarans, which is entirely fitting with the story's intense focus on class. The Rutan manifests itself in the form of first Ben and then Reuben, i.e. exclusively in terms of working class characters, and though this can be seen as 'usage' or 'exploitation' of them, the destruction the Rutan wreaks is general. It kills all ages, sexes and classes. It kills the man who made his name enforcing empire in India just as it kills the workers. If it stands for the lethal destructiveness of the oncoming era of technology and imperialism... i.e. the 'Great War' that is, to the people in the lighthouse, only a few years away... then it depicts the dangers as generally applicable, which was not the case historically (though in the age of the firestorm bombings and nuclear bombs, it seemed to be going that way). All the same, by personifying the oncoming dangers of the twentieth century in a form that associates itself with militarism, military technology, snobbery and imperialism, 'Horror' may harbour a harsher critique than that personified by the Family.
You might say it’s not the job of Doctor Who to harshly critique militarism, military technology, snobbery and imperialism. To that I’d say two things. One: Doctor Who seemed to quite often think that was its job. And two: with such things, the absence of critique is not neutrality but support. That which you pass over in silence is that which you accept as good, necessary, unavoidable, or at least unimportant. That isn’t apolitical. That’s highly political. That’s the fundamental flaw in the whole approach which pits the golden vision of even-handed drama against the strawman of didacticism. Again, it’s the false idol of balance. You balance truth against lies, oppressor against oppressed, facts against silence, PR against reality… and what you get isn’t neutrality, or a discussion. What you get is controlled silence, as with the depiction of John Smith's lessons. I’m not saying we should take our policies and programmes from TV shows, or that TV shows have to offer policies and programmes, but if we’re going to watch them, let’s acknowledge that what they say to us. Let’s at least notice.
The story ends with Martha pinning a poppy onto the Doctor’s lapel. Let’s pause to consider what a deeply political symbol the poppy is. The Doctor would never be allowed to wear a Conservative or Labour or LibDem rosette, or anything of the sort. From within the BBC, such a thing would be unimaginable. He is permitted to wear a poppy, however, because it is perceived as apolitical. And yet the poppy is the official, national "mark of respect" that is sanctioned and moderated by the very establishment that waged, and still wages, the wars it commemorates. It is a mark of respect to the wars themselves, as well as those who fell in them. It dodges the issue of imperialism (and thus of blame). It is a deeply powerful ideological tool, capable of being adopted by the conservative, for whom it is a symbol of sacrifice and patriotism, or the liberal, for whom it can mean sombre reflection on tragedy. It is the emblem of the "madness" or "pointlessness" of war, both ideas that silently pass over (and thus excuse) the very sane, cynical and successful (for the warmongers) pursuit of advancement, as well as the deeper historical and systemic forces which generate imperialist conflict. It normalises. It creates a false sense of national community. It is a de-contextualised piece of costume that allows even warmongers to appear as though they care about the people they send to kill and die. And its perniciousness lies in the very fact that it is almost impossible to take issue with it. It represents a widespread refusal on the part of our society to talk about things that urgently need to be talked about, a kind of smothering agreement we’ve all made to not question certain things because its ‘in poor taste’. Really, anyone who has ever complained "you can’t say anything these days" should try criticising the poppy, or ‘our boys’ (especially once they’ve been sent somewhere to fight) in England, and see what real political correctness is. The real political correctness is to keep silent about the fact that we were, and are, an imperialist nation, and we send ‘our boys’ (and, of course, ‘our girls’) out on some of the dirtiest work imaginable, and that they often fail to come back, or come back maimed, from this dirty work. As with the poem that is read at the end of the episode (like the hymn earlier, far from the most caustic that could have been chosen), it passes in silence over inconvenient issues. The years will not condemn 'us'… whatever 'we' did.
The core of the story is pure humanitarian intervention in the mid 2000s. It's essentially a story about what happens when someone powerful, pursued by aggressive evil, decides to shy away from the conflict, to run away instead of standing and fighting, to engage in cowardly squeamishness rather than using his power to squash the baddies. What happens is that the baddies eventually catch up with him and, after a lots of needless deaths that could've been prevented, the powerful good guy decides to use his power after all. He mercilessly squashes the nasty people, feeling entirely justified in doing so. The only twinge of conscience is connected to the fact that his initial decision to avoid conflict caused lots of innocent people to die. The story is thus based on the idea that the trouble is caused if you shy away from a fight when insane, aggressive, alien fanaticism attacks sleepy, peace-loving England. The story depicts various forms of prejudice and inequality, but always through the lens of the putative modern and enlightened viewer, and with the implication that they are deformations of the past, on their way to being ironed-out as progress makes its steady upward arc. Moreover, it is implied that the liberal standards against which these deformations are judged is the same standard that is being fought for. (See the first part of this series.) Tim, the boy who questioned his training for empire, is the boy who (in this version of the story) decides that he has a moral duty to fight. The story depicts the 'bad' attitudes of the past, along with the imperial attitudes in Mr Smith’s classroom, in a de-contextualised, ‘balanced’ way that fails to emphasize them, especially when they are implicitly ‘flaws’ in a national community under attack from outside, from the ruthless aggression of the Family. As noted, the most telling effect of this neutral balance is that it fails to create vital context for the actions of the Family. Their imperialism thus clashes with England, rather than rhyming with it. Any critical charge is dispersed.
This is exactly the same as the history lesson that leaves out vital context. You imagine, a few years down the line, more lessons being taught in Mr Smith’s old classroom, in which a new generation of boys are taught about the First World War, taught that Britain entered the war for democracy and civilisation, without being taught about the depravities of the British Empire around the globe, taught that ‘we’ entered to protect ‘plucky little Belgium’ without being told of Belgium’s genocide in the Congo... vital context if you want to evaluate the moral claims being made by the people who want you to kill and die for them. The boys will be taught that it is their moral duty to fight in such wars, and never given the context they need to make fully-informed decisions. They'll be taught that it's immoral to shy away from such moral battles, that it makes things worse. And then, one day, the issues they weren't taught about in school will still not be covered in any TV show that wants to be seen as balanced.
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