Time Can Be Rewritten(...ish) 24

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…ish is one of those pieces that is desperate for you to recognize how clever it is, which would be irritating if it weren't so damned clever. Indeed, it's sufficiently clever that an irritating number of reviewers seem to think that this is a lot of clever presentation wrapped around an overly simple story. This, however, involves an unfortunate confusion of plot with story. The plot is standard Doctor Who fare - an expedition to an alien planet inadvertently collects something… evil. It escapes back among the humans and threatens to cause untold devastation. After uncovering malfeasance among the people who went on the expedition the Doctor stops the evil thing and saves the day. As basic as they come, really.

The only tricky bit, really, is that the "something evil" is, in fact, a word and that the nature of the threat is the complete collapse of all language and meaning. The word - referred to as the "ish" - destroys meaning itself - as, of course, does the suffix itself. The threat is that the ish will be unleashed into the Omniverbum, which is essentially the Word of "in the beginning was the" fame.

It's just that this tricky bit causes the story to extend considerably beyond the straightforward plot. It also, however, enables a mass of cleverness, some of which is oft-noted and some of which is less so. The most obvious thing to observe is that this is a story that required Baker's Doctor. One of the key characteristics of Baker's Doctor is a degree of pomposity. Unfortunately, as Tat Wood rather cuttingly observed in About Time, this tends to manifest such that Baker comes off as a dumb person's idea of what a smart person is like. Which is to say that the writers had an irritating tendency to write with the thesaurus open such that Baker's Doctor displays a certain… ludicrous logorrhea, if you will. (The trait is, of course, compounded when Pip and Jane Baker are writing for him, since their tendency is to write everybody verbosely to begin with.)

So for a story that is about words and language there was really only one Doctor to choose. And the story is littered with bits of wordplay and what is less continuity porn than continuity erotica - a bevy of jokes that are both terribly obscure and utterly artful. (An impossibly large encyclopedia volume beginning with DAL, for instance. Or a Delphon joke.) There's also a rampant set of jokes referencing post-structuralist literary theory - several bits of dialogue are straight lifts from major postmodernist thinkers. (I caught at the very least a Lacan and a Deleuze reference) This is also a compelling bit of timing. The era this story is set during was the real breakout of postmodernism, both in popular culture and in academia, and a story that is about postmodern literary theory is a natural fit - a story that on the one hand would never have been made in the era itself, but on the other still speaks to the cultural concerns of the era.

But there is one bit of cleverness in the course of the story worth dissecting a little bit. At one point it's suggested that the renegade word is bigger on the inside. And more to the point, as soon as this is established both the Doctor and Peri stop being able to remember the word "TARDIS." The obvious implication is that the ish has, at this point, consumed the idea of the TARDIS and rendered the very conception of the series meaningless.

Actually, calling this an implication is overstating the subtlety a bit. The narration has Professor Osefa, or, at least, a hologlyphic (not holographic, crucially) representation of her describe the Doctor's wit and language, and to speculate as to what would happen if he met a foe that was of language and thus not susceptible to it. So the story is overtly in the realm of that old favorite genre of ours, narrative collapse.

So to recap, narrative collapse works relatively straightforwardly. The story introduces a threat that not only endangers something like the universe or the Doctor's life, but that endangers the basic ability to tell Doctor Who stories in the first place. Then, once it appears that the basic storytelling of Doctor Who has collapsed the Doctor figures out some clever way of cheating, breaking the rules, and restoring order. But in order to do so some sort of terrible price is extracted.

For some time we have been tracking the seeming price of a deferred narrative collapse. Season 22 seemed as though an exorcism, a spasmodic execution of the program's accumulated flaws. And the major theme for next season is going to be the strange incoherence of the story - the bizarre incommensurability at the heart of The Trial of a Time Lord. But there is a missing element here. We've been tracing the effects of a narrative collapse without seeing the collapse itself.

Instead what we see is a whacking big hole - the Season 23 That Wasn't. Or, as we may as well call it in the name of getting into the spirit of things, the Seasonish. Within this narrative space that is defined entirely by its absence there is, by implication, a narrative collapse. But the collapse is wholly emboited. But wait a moment. The Charged Vacuum Emboitement was the idea of a metaphor - a single unit that encompasses an entire universe. Here we have a strange inversion. Instead of the narrative collapse serving as a metaphor for the turmoil that led to the Seasonish we have the Seasonish serving as a metaphor for an emboited narrative collapse.

In other words, one of the supposed fundamental principles of narrative has unexpectedly given way. We are used to narrative serving up metaphors for the real world. To see this inverted - for reality to begin actively to serve as a symbolic container for narrative effects - is uncanny. But not, crucially, unprecedented The nature of television, as pointed out in the very first episode, is emboitement - the enclosure of a larger space within a small box. Television is itself the real symbol containing narrative effects. But typically that is what defines television - i.e. what sets it apart from everything around it. It's the real thing that emboits narratives.

But in the Seasonish it comes to confront an equally compelling concept: alchemy. The secret of alchemy is material social progress, but this is really just a restatement of the already asserted premise of alchemy: as above, so below. If we take Doctor Who as an alchemical television show then it is uniquely capable of the magic trick we're seeing here. If television emboits narrative space and Doctor Who is a narrative space defined by the principle that "as above so below" then Doctor Who is, in fact, a narrative space that can emboit anything. (As I said at the start, all stories are Doctor Who stories. Not for nothing is he the renegade Master of the Land of Fiction)

The relevance of …ish, obviously, is that it provides the lost narrative collapse by inserting itself into the Seasonish as one of the conspicuously absent stories. But in this regard it is key to note that …ish is not a television story. It's an audio play. Television is an emboited medium, but radio/audio is not. Television encloses its narrative space, but radio expels it, pushing its narrative out into the world. And more to the point, it does so into a space that is completely unbounded. There is no physical box into which audio-based narrative is compressed. The only limiting factor to the physical size of the audient void is transmission itself - the length of the chain of molecules vibrated by the sound wave. As long as the text is reiterated it can grow infinitely.

And so …ish provides the perfect vector for this inversion of the order of things. By positioning the lost narrative collapse of the Seasonish in audio instead of television …ish provides the means of Doctor Who's ultimate survival. If the preceding few years have been the story of how Doctor Who was driven off a cliff, the next four provide the story of how Doctor Who was put into a position where it would someday return, and return not as a reanimated corpse but as a genuine continuation of a particular line of thought and storytelling. If we attempt to treat …ish as a component of the Seasonish - and the nature of the Seasonish is that it readily can include an ahistorical phenomenon like …ish within it - then we find a moment that symbolically justifies Doctor Who's cheating of the narrative collapse of 1989.

I do not mean this only in terms of Doctor Who's sneaking out the back door of its own medium to survive in other forms and wait patiently for its return. I also mean that the issues that …ish addresses are going to turn out to be crucial over the remaining sixteen Doctor Who stories in terms of how the series moves rapidly from the smoldering trainwreck of the Baker years to a concept that has real and serious legs. Taken as a rewriting of time, …ish serves an explanatory function not in terms of the particulars of Doctor Who continuity but in terms of the basic conception of what Doctor Who is.

Another one of the basic premises of postmodernism is that all discourse is additive. The double negative may be logically equivalent to the positive, but as someone once said, logic is a new toy. On a more basic level contradiction and rejection is still an additive process. "Not X" requires the conception of X in addition to its rejection. "Not Not X" adds further. This is what laymen fail to recognize about deconstruction - it's not a plunge into nihilism but rather a plunge into a reckless surplus of meanings. By tearing something down into component parts and looking at the absurdities generated we do not mean to leave the thing taken apart and non-functional. Rather we mean to prompt the creation of further concepts - we mean progress. (The other thing people fail to realize about deconstruction and postmodernism is who we're trying to fool. Ourselves, mainly.)

It is telling, then, that the Doctor's specific cheat to defeat the ish is to employ the gaps and ambiguities of language as the Doctor and Peri attack it with differences between American and British speech. In other words, the ish is finally foiled by the slipperiness between a word and its meaning - the very slipperiness that fuels postmodernism. Put another way, faced with a seemingly inescapable dualism between the word that would encompass the whole of creation into a single fixed thing (the omniverbum) and the word that would destroy all meaning (the ish), and, more crushingly, faced with the prospect that these are actually the same thing, the Doctor's solution is to play word games. The Doctor survives through the idea that continued use of language is self-sustaining and always creates new things to escape both extremes of fixity.

And in doing so, symbolically, he makes the switch between the two ends of the narrative collapse - the grotesque exorcism of Season 22 and the chaotic rebirth of Season 23. Which, since there's going to be a lot to do over the course of Season 23, we may as well start setting up here. Season 23 does not make a lot of sense. Or, perhaps more accurately, it makes a wild excess of sense. Over the course of the fourteen episodes so many different things are implied, suggested, and gestured towards that the results are impossible to square away with anything at all, least of all Trial of a Time Lord itself. The result falls visibly short of "good," but is nevertheless such a massive chunk of concepts as to be strangely essential. Even though no televised Doctor Who stories since Trial of a Time Lord have once mentioned or referenced any of its ideas it remains influential simply because of their sheer mass.

But it is terribly, terribly muddled and confused. And so, as a result, is the approach to it (hence this entry). And, for that matter, the transition from it to the next thing that appears to be a coherent era of Doctor Who - hence, not to get horribly far ahead of ourselves, the head-scratching nature of Season 24. And so if the ideas on either side of it are a mess, one can only imagine what the inside of it must be like.

(For our purposes, the answer is "less self-parodic than this, but complex nevertheless.")

Comments

elvwood 4 years, 10 months ago

I thought you'd have fun with this one, and I knew narrative collapse would have to be a big theme of the entry; but as usual, you've gone far beyond what I could think of. Great stuff - many thanks!

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Gnaeus 4 years, 10 months ago

" The threat is that the ish will be unleashed into the Omniverbum, which is essentially the Word of "in the beginning was the" fame."

A problematic suggestion, since "through him all things were made and without him nothing was made which was made", according to the same passage, two verses further down (i.e., Jn 1:3). We appear to be dealing with gnosticism. Again. "Nihil novi", etc.

"By tearing something down into component parts and looking at the absurdities generated we do not mean to leave the thing taken apart and non-functional."

Unfortunately, intentional or not, this tends to be the result.

"Rather we mean to prompt the creation of further concepts - we mean progress."

Unfortunately, your fourfold visions seem (to the ignorant humanist [note lack of capitalisation]) to render everything meaningless by insisting that everything is meaningful (including that everything is meaningless, that meaning is meaningless, that meaninglessness is meaningful, etc.) "When everyone's a somebody", etc.

"(The other thing people fail to realize about deconstruction and postmodernism is who we're trying to fool. Ourselves, mainly.)"

Well, if you aren't fooling anyone else...

"In other words, the ish is finally foiled by the slipperiness between a word and its meaning - the very slipperiness that fuels postmodernism."

Please correct me, but I thought there was no difference between a word and its use/meaning. I thought this was the essential premise of Wittgenstein's work.

"Put another way, faced with a seemingly inescapable dualism between the word that would encompass the whole of creation into a single fixed thing (the omniverbum) and the word that would destroy all meaning (the ish), and, more crushingly, faced with the prospect that these are actually the same thing, the Doctor's solution is to play word games. The Doctor survives through the idea that continued use of language is self-sustaining and always creates new things to escape both extremes of fixity."

As I thought, but this raises a serious issue: can the ish be a word? It is, essentially, not meaning. An anti-Logos. An inversion which must necessarily be limited, a an inversion of the unlimited. Once we understand this, we can tear the mask from it: the "ish" is none other than the Mighty Mother, Dulness.

"As Argus’ eyes, by Hermes’ wand oppress’d,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after art goes out, and all is night..."

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 10 months ago

You're eliding use and meaning, and they're two very different things.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 10 months ago

Dismantling a phenomenon to look at its component parts is analysis. If analysis tends to reveal that the analyzed phenomenon doesn't achieve what we thought it could, or deceives us about what it actually achieves, so much the worse for the phenomenon, and so much the worse for us for trusting it without critique.

"When everyone's a somebody. . ."
But everyone is precisely a somebody. This is a problem that's bugged me a lot recently: the idea that in order for one body to be meaningful (or artful, or praiseworthy, or whatever similar ascription you want to use), it has to be contrasted with something that lacks meaning. Here, meaning is used as a sorting term. But there can also be the descriptive use of a term, where we describe a body in terms of how its meaning is generated.

We can learn about some aspects of the world by asking sorting questions: "Is it X?" But there are other, also very important, aspects of the world that we can learn by asking descriptive questions: "How goes it?" Sorting questions have quick, easy answers: Yes, No, or Investigate further until establishing Yes or No. Descriptive questions are open-ended, with no indication at the start of an inquiry when your understanding will be adequate to the phenomenon investigated.

When I worked in journalism, my most insightful piece of on-the-job training was my instruction never to ask "Is it X?" questions, because you never got interesting answers. I was always trained to ask "How?" and "Why?" questions because that was the way you actually learned something.

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David Anderson 4 years, 10 months ago

Wittgenstein's actual formulation is that when you ask for the meaning of a word you're asking how it's used. But I don't think Wittgenstein would say that therefore a word is how it's used. Indeed, his diagnosis of the problems of a lot of philosophy is that philosophy contains a lot of words that aren't actually being used in any way. (And 'Meaning' in philosophy is frequently one of them.)

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David Anderson 4 years, 10 months ago

I had a couple of bits of dissatisfaction with the story.
The suffix ...ish is itself an assertion of the gap between the word and its application since it signals that the word does apply but does not apply quite successfully. It's an explicit marker of the play of language (play in an engine is what happens when the parts don't quite fit together snugly). So regarding the syllable ...ish as a complete breakdown of meaning that is opposed to the Doctor is in some ways an assertion that the Doctor is on the side of meaning as usual. I'm not sure that I'm entirely happy about that implication. (It's striking here that, contrary to the usual set up of a Doctor Who story the Doctor is known to at least some of the organisers and therefore belongs at the conference. In other words, he's not working in his usual status as the outsider.)
I'm also unsure about the English-language jingoism. It's part undone when the lack of fit between US and UK English becomes crucial to defeating the entity - but I'm still not sure it's fully defensible.

One other thing - it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that Colin Baker's Doctor works in audio as he doesn't on television. It would be interesting to explore why that is further - is it just a matter of tweaking the character? There seems to be much too much to talk about in Jubilee to talk about that.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 10 months ago

I think the success of Colin Baker on audio can be accounted for almost entirely by the fact that the writers don't suck.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 10 months ago

One of the major themes of this blog is really starting to become clear to me now. If it was clear to anyone else earlier, I fully admit that you're smarter than me. It was the subject of a twitter rant of mine last night: tracing the trauma and impact of the missing episodes on Doctor Who, its fans, and its producers. The wiped episodes from the 1960s are, of course, the most traumatically powerful, but unproduced stories like the original Shada and season 23 (I love that name, the Seasonish) have their own impacts as well.

The near complete loss of the Troughton era and the last year of Hartnell is probably the most egregious trauma inflicted on the show. And their effects once the fan-industrial complex began to affect how Doctor Who was made was disastrous. They had lost forever this part of the show that so affected them as children, as the commenters on my mystification about the Yeti obsession illustrate. I re-read Phil's post on The Abominable Snowmen, and he's right that, in terms of their concept, the Yeti and the Great Intelligence are kind of stupid. Yet they were scary to children, and when those children became adults, they only had their romanticized nostalgia to inform them of what those stories actually were.

The loss was traumatic — childhood was gone! — and there was no way to check the actual quality of those stories. So the opinion proliferated in fan culture and the reference literature that the style of story in the most decimated era — the base under siege — was glorified as what Doctor Who should be. No matter its quality, what is lost is remembered most fondly of all.

What was most important in the base under siege was the monster of the week. All other characters were reduced to functions in the service of the display of the monsters through the siege. This was the message uncovered in Doctor in Distress: the Doctor and the companions were superfluous to a show that was conceived as being a catalogue of monsters. A catalogue of monsters makes for a great encyclopedia, but bad television.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 9 months ago

Wittgenstein draws a distinction between signs and symbols. A sign is the visible or audible physical mark, while the symbol is the sign used to mean something. So e.g. "bank" (meaning a financial institution) and "bank" (meaning the edge of a river) are the same sign but different symbols.

Although this in effect is W. distinguishing between a word and its meaning, one point W. insists on -- and this is what you may have in mind in saying that W. denies the distinction between a word and its meaning -- is that there is no independently identifiable X, describable apart from the sign, such that the symbol = the sign plus X.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 9 months ago

no televised Doctor Who stories since Trial of a Time Lord have once mentioned or referenced any of its ideas

Unless the Dream Lord counts as a nod to the Valeyard.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

I think, much like the fact that Davies actively went with a different Time War and destruction of Gallifrey from the one he already had available, that the Dream Lord is less a nod to the Valeyard than a tacit rejection of it.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 9 months ago

Thinking of the themes of the Whoniverse and continuity fetishism that have come to dominate the show from 1982-5, ...ish basically expresses the answer. The strict continuity of the Whoniverse would kill Doctor Who by constraining his actions in a thicker and thicker web of references and internal consistency. The solution reminds me of what Phil wrote about The Ribos Operation about being stuck between a regimented order (the omniverbum) and purely destructive chaos (ish). Either solution marks the end of creativity, so total constraint and absolute dissolution amounts to the same, regarding practical action.

"Faced with a seemingly inescapable dualism between the word that would encompass the whole of creation into a single fixed thing (the omniverbum) and the word that would destroy all meaning (the ish), and, more crushingly, faced with the prospect that these are actually the same thing, the Doctor's solution is to play word games. The Doctor survives through the idea that continued use of language is self-sustaining and always creates new things to escape both extremes of fixity."

Facing a dualism of order and chaos, the Doctor should reject the whole system, deciding to play and act in the world, experimenting to create possibilities. At this point in the show's history, Doctor Who itself had to do this.

The Seasonish is the ultimate way to do so. It was originally a dead time for the show: nothing was being produced. The result was that Colin Baker's tenure became the most maligned and truncated of the entire series. As the audio plays inserted story after story in the space around either side of Trial of a Time Lord, C. Baker's era expanded into a more diverse area than any Doctor fully constrained by the transmission of the classic series ever got. (McCoy's Doctor wasn't really constrained in this way, because the NAs continued in a forward momentum.)

The Colin Baker era found its renaissance in the slippery spaces between television stories, an otherwise inconceivable outcome for a television show. Dualisms of order and chaos typically operate by convincing people that the dual choice is the only possibility. But Doctor Who accomplished the inconceivable by committing a kind of heresy against television (Binro triumphant?): making a television series without television.

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J. L. Webb 4 years, 9 months ago

I think that both tread the fine line between rejection and re-conception, avoiding what could be seen as continuity fetishism by reinventing old idea so as to be better tailored (in general, and to modern/television tastes).
They still leave enough threads to the old versions of the ideas as that nothing need fall out of cannon (in so much as cannon is a meaningful concept, and let's face it some portion of the fandom will always insist on this), but they provide a loophole (a wormhole in the universe of ideas, if you will) through which the spirit of the original can be reached, without having to be tied to all of it's complexities and trappings.
heaven knows what will become of the Valeyard...

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J. L. Webb 4 years, 9 months ago

Your re-allusion to the Secret Origin of The Doctor sparked a thought; If he is The Master of the Land of Fiction, then is not The Master what he was always conceived as? A dark inversion of The Doctor's psyche...
Surely he is a manifestation of all the power and manipulation which The Doctor rejects by becoming a free spirit?

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Tommy 4 years, 9 months ago

I'd have gone more with Big Finish's Jubilee (unless *fingers crossed* you mean to cover it at a later date, perhaps after Peri's departure) in terms of picking a story about the narrative collapse of Doctor Who and the creative destruction that comes with it. Especially since it's something of an answer and reckoning with the 'is the Doctor simply a bigot?' question left by The Two Doctors.

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Tommy 4 years, 9 months ago

... and by extension, 'is Doctor Who the TV show just his propaganda?'

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BerserkRL 4 years, 9 months ago

heaven knows what will become of the Valeyard

It all depends who's running the show when Matt Smith's successor yields to Matt Smith's successor's successor.

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David Anderson 4 years, 9 months ago

That's up for 15th June, according to the Monday April 23 (Warmonger) post. And having just listened to Jubilee, I can see why it's being covered.

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