The Masters of the Earth (The Green Death)


It’s May 19th, 1973. Between now and June 23rd, forty-eight will die in a plane crash in India, six will die in a pair of IRA bombings in Coleraine, thirteen will die in Argentina when snipers open fire on protesters in the Ezeiza massacre, and six year old boy in Kingston upon Hull will die in the first fire of Peter Dinsdale’s near decade-long spree of arson. This relatively sparse major death toll masks the steady progression of the world towards the eschaton. Also, The Green Death airs.

The Green Death offers a genuinely uncanny trick of perspective—like one of those lenticular images that shifts as you move in front of it. One second it’s the most 1973 thing imaginable, a cornucopia of glam semiotics. The next it’s a strangely contemporary thing, with concerns that have not aged a day. The obvious explanation for this is that very little has changed in forty-seven years—corporations continue to be killing the world according to the logic of a supposedly dispassionate algorithm. Sure, the climate crisis has edged out industrial waste and the sheer size of the computers has ratcheted downwards, but the basic concerns really are the same. We knew what needed to be done a half-century ago, we didn’t do it, and now we’re watching nervously as the inevitable cascade begins.

None of this is wrong per se. The Green Death’s earnest environmentalism really has aged quite well, looking more like clear-headed moral certainty than po-faced lecturing. The story remains stylistically of its time, but in a way that feels like a reverse remake—a story from the 2020s that got a campy 1970s remake. This, however, is veering dangerously into Philip Sandifer territory. Let’s not get too wrapped up in supernatural implications. After all, this is scarcely the first oddly prescient Doctor Who story we’ve seen, and you can hardly be surprised that 1973 is more prescient than 1963. Watching the present emerge into focus is an even more boring way to watch Doctor Who than trying to decode the secret alchemical messages about utopia.

Let’s ask instead what’s changed between this and the previous evil computer story, The War Machines. The most obvious difference is between WOTAN and BOSS on the level of personality. Which, I suppose the more basic one is that BOSS has a personality. WOTAN is simply a system of automation run amok—an analogue for capitalism where the wrong value is pursued with a ruthless maximalism that suddenly highlights the flaw in the value. And this is true of most of the computers up to this point. Consider the unthinking rigidity of the computer in The Ice Warriors, or, more broadly, the treatment of the Cybermen as forces of dispassionate, emotionless control. In every case, computers are fundamentally remote, doing what they are programmed to do, only to an extent catastrophically unanticipated by their programmers.

BOSS is a tremendous departure from this. As explained, he was connected to a human brain and learned the vast and magic power of inefficiency, with which he ascended to godhood. There’s a lot going on here, very little of which makes “sense” in the conventionally understood meaning of that word, but all of which is interesting. The most obvious thing to notice is that the anxiety over computers has advanced to the point where defensiveness has gone from being a matter of basic principle (“There's nothing more important than human life. Machines cannot govern man!”) to self-justifying, anxiously offering reasons why humans might be superior to computers. More to the point, the justifications have a desperate, slightly unhinged quality to them. Humans are better than computers because inefficiency is good actually. It’s magical thinking—a desperate clutch based not on principle but on a frenzied insistence that humanity must be better than computers and therefore that any trait humanity has must be valuable. Even in BOSS’s description of it, there’s a clear element of magical thinking: “the secret of human creativity is inefficiency. The human brain is a very poor computer indeed. It makes illogical guesses which turn out to be more logical than logic itself.” There’s no reasoning here—just blind hope in the supernatural efficacy of human frailties.

But alongside that is another, equally significant shift. When WOTAN rose up and tried to take over the world it attained a level of sentience, but remained fundamentally without personality. It spoke, but only in the sense of giving directions and orders. BOSS, on the other hand, absolutely drips with personality. It is alternately funny, sardonic, and jealous, routinely stealing scenes from everyone around it. This is, in other words, even more of a fantasy than WOTAN, marking Doctor Who’s first experiments with the idea of artificial intelligence producing actual people.

Like most first efforts, this is incoherent—an episode after his bemusing praise of inefficiency, BOSS gets a nice villainous rant about maximizing efficiency, while the Doctor delivers a stirring speech about the awful consequences of this efficiency. And the story is still doing the classic banal nonsense of “the computer can’t handle a paradox.” So the move towards thinking of artificial intelligences as people is incomplete—indeed, the story seems to be betraying itself slightly, accidentally presenting BOSS as more human than it means to by sheer dint of John Dearth’s inspired vocal performance. 

That stirring speech of the Doctor’s is revealing as to more of what’s going on here. To quote it in full, “Stevens, listen to me. You've seen where this efficiency of yours leads. Wholesale pollution of the countryside. Devilish creatures spawned by the filthy by-products of your technology. Men walking around like brainless vegetables. Death. Disease. Destruction.” This isn’t just ecological catastrophe, but something more qlippothic and in line with cosmic horror. There’s a sense of being closer to something like Inferno’s “this planet screaming out its rage.” The oversized deadly maggots are of course a pretty standard “mutated by toxic waste” trope, but the emphasis isn’t actually there—the word “mutation” only appears once, as Cliff Jones theorizes that “oil waste from Global Chemicals must have contaminated some of the maggots causing an atavistic mutation.”  The specific technobabble here, with the sense of the maggots reaching back to some primordial form, emphasizes the sense of planetary revenge, as does the fact that what Global Chemicals are doing in practice is somehow extracting more petrol out of a given quantity of crude oil. It makes further sense that this would be the scheme of a computer that has merged its consciousness with humanity and ascended into some supposedly higher order of being—the sense of making things that are unnatural and should not be as a grave sin. 

This gets at one of the places where The Green Death seems least prescient. The apparent environmental concern and the reason that Jones and his followers apparently have for opposing Global Chemicals’ approach is that “we’re using up the world’s supply of oil.” This oversimplifies slightly, as later Jones suggests that they’re “doubling the atmospheric pollution,” which one could argue is the first acknowledgment of global warming in Doctor Who, but it’s a stretch, and in the same sentence Jones expresses the same concern about exhausting the oil supply, with the turn to renewable energy seemingly being more about not running out of energy than about the environmental impact of it. This doesn’t quite line up with modern thought on environmentalism, skewing more towards a model of “fossil fuels are bad because we’re pillaging the Earth,” where the Earth’s response of “I curse thee with my death maggots” reads as a response to the hubris of trying to get even more out of her crude oil than she’s already giving.

Philip Sandifer, looking at this, has one of his periodic moments of actual insight when he notes that the result of this is an opposition between two forms of putrefaction—Global Chemicals’ maggots and the nuthutch’s fungus. But in focusing on the question of which form of putrefaction is superior, Sandifer misses the real question, which is why the world has been reduced to two forms of putrefaction in the first place. (Ironic that a self-identified postmodernist would so spectacularly miss the opportunity to question a binary opposition, but that’s Sandifer for you, and, for that matter, postmodernists.) 

This is, after all, not a small matter. Putrefaction, in an alchemical sense (which of course is how Sandifer spins it, being almost as obsessed with Wikipedia summaries of occultism than he is with postmodernism), is a concept of death, destruction, and confrontation with the abyss as a productive matter. It is the destruction before one begins to build towards higher things. And so by blinding accepting The Green Death’s hippy-inflected love of wholesome fungus, Sandifer ultimately sells out the actual purpose of the exercise. After all, there is nothing particularly dark or destructive about the nuthutch. They’re a bunch of loveable lefty kids. Fungus may work as a symbol of putrefaction, but there’s no serious putrefaction in what the nuthutch offers. Ultimately, after all, they’re working with heavily processed fungus—typically powders. If this is alchemy, they are off to the albedo or the rubedo. That what they’re doing represents a better approach to life than Global Chemicals is thus obvious.

But if so, then the putrefaction of Global Chemicals has its place in the alchemical cycle as well. Which means that it cannot be idly dismissed as without value. Indeed, if one wanted to construct a serious postmodernist occultist reading of The Green Death, this seems the only angle to take. If The Green Death can be said to be setting up an alchemical hierarchy, then this hierarchy still positions Global Chemicals and their giant death maggots in a position of sacred privilege. Whatever enlightenment this story is offering, it requires a confrontation with the putrefied horror. 

What might we conclude from this? A truth worth acknowledging: the planet is hostile to human hubris. If life itself is not inimicable to its existence, at the very least capitalist civilization is. The planet resents human ambition—it resents attempts to master it. And more to the point, its resentment takes blunt and murderous form, unleashing Weird terrors upon humanity for its sins. This is exaggerated, yes. And yet there is an essential truth to it—one that is worth expressing in this period. After all, even if the Doctor is no longer earthbound (and indeed, his ability to pop off to Metebelis Three is a key plot point), this story is still a part of the period where he was, relying on the supporting cast introduced when the show was reimagined without the TARDIS

And the truth is, there is no TARDIS. Nor are there spaceships, or anything else waiting to take us off of the planet. As discussed back in the Inferno essay, the Earth is a terrifyingly inescapable prison—a rock surrounded by an infinite vacuum, tethered to a single power source in the form of a slowly dying star. This is not a situation that seeks to foster life. Indeed, a contemplation of the larger universe makes a compelling case that civilization is only meant to exist within strict limits. Otherwise, why configure the place with such deadly vast expanses of nothing? If the cosmos has any relationship with life, it is to try to ensure that it is as rare and contained as possible. And it is good that Doctor Who acknowledges this during the period where it largely decides to forego imagining alternatives to Earth. The Green Death does not just offer a useful environmental message, but a grimly realist warning: humanity lives at the mercy of its jailer. 


Christopher Brown 10 months ago

A Two Sandifers story at this point would likely be as violent and off-putting as the actual Two Doctors.

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Prandeamus 10 months ago

I am finding the constant belittling of Sandifer (P) by Sandifer (E) tremendously unsettling. I realise/assume it's an intentional ploy, but it's working almost too well.

It feels like world hit the eschaton this week; it's certainly feeling like it.

I look forward to a time when ES will be able to speak with some the optimism of the late PS. Yes, I know it's at least partially a literary device. At least I sincerely hope so.

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Austin George Loomis 10 months ago

"I have wondered before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions. They prevent the spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading."
-- C.S. Lewis, The World's Last Night

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Przemek 10 months ago

One of my favourite essays of the Dalek Eruditorum. Thank you.

"the secret of human creativity is inefficiency. The human brain is a very poor computer indeed. It makes illogical guesses which turn out to be more logical than logic itself."

This almost sounds like the story is trying to say "intuition/imagination" (another stock human trait that supposedly makes us better than computers), but instead it says something way more interesting.

I wonder what BOSS means by "logic". Perhaps it's just "efficiency"? After all, human brains can supposedly surpass computers by coming up with solutions that can't be reached using pure logic. This, in turn, means that humans are more likely to come up with new ways of maximizing profits. BOSS' praise of "guesses more logical then logic itself" almost sounds like he realized that allowing humans to sometimes be inefficient increases their creativity and thus actually increases overal efficiency. Which is exactly what capitalism realized at some point - that's one of the main reasons Google employees are allowed to play Guitar Hero or build LEGO robots at work.

Also, I think it's important that when confronted with a paradox, BOSS doesn't burst into flames (which is the typical use of this trope) but is instead occupied for a while, trying to find a solution - and then, when we see it again, it's proceeding with its plans, having apparently snapped out of it. Which feels a bit more human than you give it credit for.

"And the truth is, there is no TARDIS. Nor are there spaceships, or anything else waiting to take us off of the planet."

A very good point. In "The Future Starts Here", John Higgs proposes a thought experiment: imagine living in an underwater city for the rest of your life. Even if you had every luxury at your disposal, wouldn't you still feel trapped and miss being outside? In his opinion, most people would. And if so, why are we even considering colonizing Mars which would be just as uncomfortable, only way more difficult and way more expensive, instead of caring for Earth?

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wings io 9 months, 4 weeks ago

This, however, is veering dangerously into Philip Sandifer territory. Let’s not get too wrapped up in supernatural implications

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Kate Orman 9 months, 1 week ago

"It’s magical thinking—a desperate clutch based not on principle but on a frenzied insistence that humanity must be better than computers and therefore that any trait humanity has must be valuable." That is fantastic. It makes sense of a huge amount of SF from my lifetime.

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