“Go on, tell them,” says Jacko to Sean.
“Tell them what? I’ll tell them nothing. They’re not people like us, they’re just a bunch of sardines.”
The fish people in the water below do not like this.
“You heard me,” jeers Sean, “Cold-blooded fishes. You haven’t got a drop of good red blood in your body.”
They don’t like that either. They’ve been surgically altered by the regime of Professor Zaroff, an old Nazi scientist who was employed by the Western powers before he disappeared (it’s implicit) and who is now running the underwater city of Atlantis (the Nazis were obsessed with Atlantis). He has forcibly turned an army of his workers into fish, complete with gills and fins and big round eyes, so that they can do the underwater jobs. (They just don’t make mad scientists like Zaroff any more.)
“A flatfish from Galway would have more guts in them than that bunch!” Sean continues. Oh yeah, I forgot to say… Sean’s Irish, hence his “gift of the gab” (sigh).
The fish people start throwing things at him.
“All right, all right, all right,” laughs Sean, “Oh, calm down and listen. Listen, will you?”
The fish people decide to hear him out. Presumably because he’s like them: a man captured and exploited by Zaroff’s regime. He hasn’t been surgically mutilated, but he’s been put to work in the Atlantean mines. (By now there should be no need for me to reiterate the connection between surgery and capital, the way the evisceration and infibulation of the human body expresses anxieties about life in capitalism, about how wage labour cuts into your bodily autonomy and your life and your physical freedom, dissecting your time and… oh look, I’m reiterating.)
“Look, you supply all the food for Atlantis, right?” asks Sean rhetorically, “It can’t be stored, right? It goes rotten in a couple of hours. That’s why Zaroff has you working like slaves night and day, right? Well, has it never occurred to your little fish brains to stop that supply of food? Feed yourselves but starve Atlantis, eh? What do you think would happen then? Well now is your chance. Will you do it, or will you stay fish slaves for the rest of your lives? You’re men, aren’t you? Well, start the blockade right now!”
Again, this is workplace agitation. The jokes at the fish people’s expense are clearly rhetoric. Sean whips them up. But the power is theirs.
I won’t attempt to describe what comes next. The fish people’s underwater strike is indescribable. And that’s good. It must be seen to be believed… and by that I don’t mean ‘believed’ in the sense of believing that there were actually fish people who actually swam around in Atlantis. I mean ‘believed’ in the sense of believing that it ever actually got made and broadcast. To us, now, it looks like a transmission from another planet. Again, that’s good. The planet we live on now is pretty boring compared this one.
It’s a relic of a lost time, when the spectacle could still express material relations of struggle, and express them materially. These days, there is no struggle, no contestation… or rather, the struggle has been effectively muffled and edited out of the mainstream media continuum, mirroring the way it has been materially suppressed. These days, you beat the baddies by monologuing about how wonderful you are while the orchestral music goes insane, CGI roars at you, a pretty (white) child cries and the audience cries too (cry damn you, cry!). Back when ‘The Underwater Menace’ was made, it was possible for slaves to beat the baddies with collective action, with agitation and unionisation and strikes and blockades, by the class struggle, by the revolt of the oppressed… and it was expressed (in the middle of a kids’ tea-time adventure show!) as a weird and wonderful ballet, overlaid with sine waves and defamiliarising dots of electronic sound from the Radiophonic Workshop. It was expressed as something that broke the boundaries of the everyday, both in narrative terms of workers disrupting the quotidian routine of exploitation, and in aesthetic terms as an explosion of the genuinely, unashamedly, discomfortingly strange and unfamiliar. The gothic and the surreal and the just plain silly, self-consciously bizarre yet steeped in real history and work and politics, joining the picket line alongside the militant and the collective and the pissed-off. That really is how its supposed to be. That really is, ultimately, what is supposed to make Doctor Who good (when it is good) and more than just another cult franchise: its ability to express the struggle in terms of the strange.
Yes, you could see the strings holding the fish people up as they ‘swam’. Yes, you could see they were just actors in silly suits and masks. Yes, you could see that the bubbles were a light show. But that in itself was part of a connection to the materially real, to actual history, to the spontaneity of human action… ultimately, to labour, and thus to the essence of humanity. Now, everything is far more ‘convincing’ while simultaneously being far more obviously false. The fish people are evidently not fish people, but they evidently are solid, material, alive. They are there. In the plastic, flat, dead, synthetic world of CGI, everything looks more ‘real’ while also being evidently phantasmic, unreal, unpresent, immaterial. The gleaming commodity has completely pushed the human hand out of view.
Just as the imperfect, weird, wonderful, material, human reality of the underwater strike ballet (d’ya see what I did there?) is a perfect representation of the imperfect, weird, wonderful, material, human reality of the collective resistance to power that it depicts, so is the smooth and depthless world of CGI a perfect representation of a world slumping into eternal neoliberal lassitude. It is the visual expression of the glossy, shiny, expensive patina of capitalist realism and neoliberal hegemony. It is a pretty picture that pretends, apparently with a straight face and an expectation of being believed, to be reality.
Give me the irony, the materiality and the anger of the ‘hand-made’ anytime.