“Is there anything the servants can get you Doctor?” asks Edward Grove over the deep, low tolling of the clock. “It is such fun giving them little chores to do!” he chortles, using the voice of the butler, Mr Shaughnessy.
“No thank you,” says the Doctor icily.
“Very well,” says Edward, vocally turning to the servants, “You may leave, all of you. Return to your duties. I shall chime if I need anything.”
The clock is central to the organisation of time in capitalist society. It regulates work. Since work is life, it regulates life. The chiming of the clock, like the jangling of the bell, is a summons to the servant, just as the factory worker must clock in and clock out at the right times. The industrial revolution fundamentally changed how people perceived time, not only by drastically changing how long it took to do certain things, but also by subjecting the workforce to new schedules. The organisation of labour in capitalist production centres also made time seem repetitious, on a permanent loop. The same set tasks, over and over again, for hour after hour. The clock is a heavily freighted symbol in any discussion of class. The class war will centre upon the organisation and reorganisation of time. Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play – this was a demand of the workers’ union struggle… though, of course, this is a gendered issue. For women, both integrated into the workforce and expected to perform unpaid domestic labour, it was always something of a joke. In the life of a domestic servant, especially a female domestic servant, the idea of time separated from the demands of ‘the household’ was almost an oxymoron.
“No doubt I’ll need another death at some point,” says Edward, “when I’m feeling hungry. I’ll let you know which one of you I’ll choose nearer the time.”
They thank him. It is part of the sick joke of it all, this obligatory gratitude.
“You do need death, don’t you,” observes the Doctor.
Edward is a sentient house. He is The Household (also the workplace, to servants) come alive. He’s a haunting that has become a mind, inhabiting a building. He was created by the constant looping and re-looping of a paradox. The Doctor has realised that the paradox which forms the foundation of his structure was created by a death. He now needs to feed on the deaths of his servants, the workers trapped inside the paradox. They each take a turn dying for him every time his two hour span replays itself. For them, even being murdered has become a chore, a duty, part of their employment. A task to be performed for the master, upon orders, and upon a fixed schedule.
Edward insists that he is alive, but the Doctor dismisses this. Edward isn’t a person, he is a pile of bricks and mortar, a loop of hours, a schedule. He’s an era. Well, he’s the Edwardian era. He’s a system that has come alive. He’s commodity fetishism, of course. Just like the stock market is a man-made thing which is treated like a living beast, with belches and farts that ‘just happen’ like the weather. He’s one of those concentrations of capital that has become so concentrated that he assumes the contours of life. But, as the Doctor points out, he has no existence except through the people that make him work.
“I can only communicate with you through Shaughnessy,” points out the Doctor. Edward has no voice except for a larynx he utilises. Even Shaughnessy’s throat has become capital to be used.
“I know,” says Edward sadly, “I know I can only be a fraction of the simplest of my servants. They will always be more than me.”
This has all happened because Edith Thompson killed herself. She was the cook in the house of the Doctor’s friend Charley, when Charley was a little middle-class Edwardian girl. Beaten down by a lifetime of class oppression and sexist and/or sexual abuse, Edith formed an attachment to the little girl, imagining her to be her only friend. Charley was, as it turns out, only vaguely aware of the woman and, when she does finally remember her, thinks of her as someone who provided pudding. She wasn’t Edith’s friend; she was a little middle-class Edwardian girl, the child of Edith’s employers. She was, to use Philip Sandifer’s phrase “the nicest of her [Edith’s] oppressors”. (This entry is heavily indebted to Sandifer’s excellent essay about ‘Chimes of Midnight’.)
Edith killed herself when Charley died… except that Charley didn’t die. The Doctor saved her. He didn’t save Edith, because the universe is unfair. And it is predictably unfair upon certain pre-set lines. Some people can cheat death and fate, and others get crushed by time. You can usually tell which people will end up where by looking at where they start from. Charley started upstairs, Edith downstairs. Like Rafallo, Edith is one of those grease monkeys backstage who gets squashed instead of whisked off to see the universe. The difference is that, in the case of Edith, there were consequences for the Doctor. His failure to save one of the grease monkeys came back to bite him in the form of Edward Grove. It’s difficult not to accept Edward’s assertion that the Doctor and Charley are his parents… and he takes after them. He is a time traveller, and he grasps after experience. He lives because Edith died. He is fond of his servants.
In the end, the Doctor and Charley escape because they convince Edith to ‘choose life’ and then give her a little pat on the head as a reward. But for Edith, choosing life means choosing that lifetime of class oppression and sexist and/or sexual abuse we mentioned earlier. It still means being locked inside Edward Grove, dominated by the chiming of the clock. It isn’t much of an escape for her. Charley escapes because of her privilege. The Doctor likewise (he has spent the story being mistaken for a gentleman, understanndably enough). The angriest thing about this angry story is that Doctor Who can comment on things like predatory capital and class oppression but can never change them… not just because it’s only a TV show (or a series of audio dramas, or comics, or novels) but because it isn’t in its interest to do so. It needs settings and plots and morals and things to be angry about.
Doctor Who is, in the end, rather more like Edward Grove than anyone would like to admit. A commodity that endlessly loops through time, feeding on the staged death tableux of its trapped playthings… but sometimes, as in this case, capable of self-awareness about it.