What can I do but cheat?
Three moments, not in chronological order.
Barbara Wright is in a junkyard. She walks into a Police Box. She’s in a large, brightly lit control room.
This can happen on screen because of the cut. The material conditions of TV production, manifested as a splicing together of two recorded moments into the appearance of one fluid event, makes this possible. We have “discovered television”. We can put huge buildings inside small boxes. We can put Narnia inside the wardrobe; Wonderland inside the rabbit hole. The quintessential trait of British fantastic literature for kids – the eccentric relationship of impossible spaces – can be made visual.
Doctor Who‘s very nature as storytelling is utterly bound up with the limits of the material conditions of television production. So much so that living on that limit became its raison d’etre. Its development has always been inextricably connected with what can materially be done, and how it is done. And what it has done has always developed what it wants to be able to do next. As I’ve said elsewhere, ‘The Space Museum’ pushes the show onto a new track, politically speaking… and it does this partly because the aesthetics of the show – which stem from the limits and capabilities of material TV production – crunch up against an allegory about empire. This sort of thing happens several times, but the first time it happens is that cut from the junkyard to the control room. The kind of story that is told is fundamentally shaped by its material production. Later, the kinds of stories that are being told demand new developments in how stories can be told. The dialectic starts here.
This is analogous (I’ll go no further than that) to one aspect of how history itself works. The productive forces determine (in the soft sense) the ideas and relations built upon them; then they come into conflict and new ideas arise that demand new developments in the productive forces. It’s fitting to find this analogy in the clockwork of a show that puts so much stress on history. It does stress history, by the way, even when it moves away from ‘historicals’ and into SF. Its mode of SF is essentially allegorical and utopian. And that too is fitting, because of those eccentric and impossible spaces of British fantastic children’s literature upon which the show is so reliant. In the post-war era, those spaces became gateways to newly-imagined social pasts, presents and futures. Under the rubble, rabbit holes might lead to a New Jerusalem.
The Doctor picks up a sharp rock. Ian evidently suspects that the Doctor intends to do something brutally pragmatic and brain Za with it. The Doctor claims he wanted to ask Za to draw a map back to the ship.
Either way, the Doctor saw a rock and decided to use it as a tool. Given that this story is about ‘cavemen’ who are dying out because they’ve forgotten how to use their own technology, I think this is pretty big.
The use of tools played a crucial role in the evolution of humanity, making us the creature with a ‘species-being’ bound up with conscious labour. Fear played a crucial role too. ‘An Unearthly Child’ is obsessed with fear, both as a poison and as a source of solidarity. “Fear makes companions of us all,” says the Doctor when he comes to Barbara’s aid. Fear melds society together.
In a talk I linked to here, China Mieville spoke about octopuses that have been observed picking up weapons just in case they need to use them later. That looks like the beginnings of conscious foresight. Maybe something like that happened to our ancient ancestors. Maybe the avoidable ‘dreaded outcome’ sparked the dialectic that began the transformation of the hand and brain. This is a vital part of a Marxist defence of the value of scaring kids. (That’s irony on the square, by the way.)
This is particularly ironic in terms of ‘An Unearthly Child’ if you suspect, as I do, that the bickering and jockeying cavemen are not our ancestors, but the descendants of the survivors of the nuclear holocaust that people in 1963 expected at any time.
The tool helped bring us into being… but it was always both map and club. Its progress was always towards television and nukes. It isn’t a popular insight, but that tragic doubleness is just what progress is.
Susan looks through a book about the French Revoution.
This revolution was probably the event most foundational to the modern world. It was a process which drastically marked the beginning of the end for feudalism in Europe. It was a popular revolt which heralded the beginning of the great dialectic of class struggle that would mark all bourgeois society and history.
She looks through a schoolbook account, doubtless a safe and sanitised version, the way such books usually are. She, one of those unpredictable and scary ‘teenager’ things that they have nowadays, one of those people who is puzzlingly neither child nor adult, one of those unearthly children, one of those youngsters listening to the Common Men, a member of a generation who would soon lead a worldwide political and cultural revolt… she reads a book about revolution that her teachers have given her, and she says to herself, in a whisper of surprised outrage…
“That’s not right!”
Fifty years later, it still isn’t right. But, for better or worse, the show goes on.
Finally, an invitation to speculate. Given that Doctor Who was so much better under social democracy than under neoliberalism, imagine how wonderful Doctor Who would be under socialism.
Admittedly, it would have to find new things to talk about…