|It’s really the fact that the cape|
vaguely resembles a condom that
It’s January 29th, 1972. The New Seekers, with no trace of irony whatsoever, would like to teach the world to sing, and are going to have to insist that the harmonies be perfect. T. Rex mercifully puts this out of its misery quickly with “Telegram Sam,” which, as with most glam acts, really needs to be seen as well as heard. This spares us for two weeks before Chicory Tip have their one hit with “Son of My Father,” a song that comes far closer to capturing some of the basic themes of this entry than it has any right to. America (with “Horse with No Name,” of course), Cat Stevens, Melanie (with “Brand New Key”), Sonny and Cher, and Don McLean (with “American Pie”) all also exist in the top ten.
While in news without power chords, the famed Bloody Sunday massacre of U2 (and absolutely brilliant Saul Williams cover) fame takes place as the British army opens fire on unarmed civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland. So OK, still power chords, but given that since I wrote the Day of the Daleks entry nearly a week ago, I should perhaps briefly talk about something I didn’t talk about there. See, I’m writing entries in six-entry chunks over the course of a week, then taking a week off for other projects these days – so this was written on 8/9/11, and I’ll be writing up through the entry for Monday the 22nd over the next five days. But had I written the Day of the Daleks entry yesterday, I’d have mentioned the dystopian urban jungles of Day of the Daleks and their eerie parallels to the photos of a burnt out and looted London. (Although what I would have said would largely involve the fact that the wasteland was all overgrown parking garages and things – a return to nature, not a nightmarish terror of rubble, and how there’s been a shift since 1972 in what we imagine society’s collapse will look like.)
But one of the things that really is worth stressing is that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. So when I say that the British army shot and killed fourteen unarmed protesters, what needs to be stressed is that this is a military deployment inside the UK shooting its own citizens. Reports exist of soldiers prior to the massacre actively declaring that “we want some kills” going into the day, and the overwhelming reports from anyone other than the military itself is that those shot were unarmed and fleeing for their lives. It is, in short, a dark and genuinely horrific atrocity. So when, in a few paragraphs, we get to talking about a sci-fi show with an accidental giant green penis alien, remember the context is that this story is going out in times of egregious, serious unrest in the country. Perhaps flip back and forth between this blog and The Guardian’s coverage of the riots every few paragraphs to get the proper impact. If nothing else, that’s how I’m writing it.
In any case, now well and truly power chord free, in what Phil Ochs dryly referred to as the State of Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, on a White House visit, implores Nixon to break the stranglehold of the Jews on the media one day after mandatory searches and screenings are instituted for all air passengers. Lest you think the jaw-dropping levels of dark and genuinely frightening unrest were somehow limited to the US. Remember, last time we had a story about the real possibility of an apocalyptic nuclear war. These are scary times.
Returning to the UK, we should also note that The Curse of Peladon transmitted during the first of the three big miners strikes – one that set off rolling power cuts that meant that large swaths of the country missed parts of this story and it was shown with helpful “here’s what you missed” recaps. Although the miners strikes are going to become an increasingly fascinating microcosm of issues in British society, at this point they’re fairly simple strikes for increased wages that has broad support.
The other thing going on is something we began talking about way back in The Faceless Ones – UK membership in the European Economic Community – a sort of proto-European Union. This is a monstrously complex event that the jury is still out on, but basically amounted to an effort to leverage the multiple strong economies in (Western) Europe into a coherent power, which would then presumably offer those charming economic development packages that were rapidly emerging as colonialism’s tasty new flavor. (Here, have a big pile of money. All you have to do is let us restructure your economy and possibly your government so you can become more like us.)
So it’s against the backdrop of all of that that we find ourselves watching The Curse of Peladon. There’s something genuinely strange about this one. On the one hand, it’s difficult to think of anything less obviously suited to the mood of strikes, power cuts, and brutal massacres than a sudden return to space for a pseudo-medieval adventure. On the other hand, this is an overtly and consciously political story that is specifically talking about the EEC.
The thing is, once you establish that a story is political, most people in trying to explain the politics as an allegory, trying to get everything to precisely and definitely refer to specific political events. (And apparently efforts to hammer The Curse of Peladon into that format have gone so far as to take hairstyles as evidence) But The Curse of Peladon is very much the story that illustrates why that’s the wrong approach.
The main issue we run into is the extremity of circumstance – the fact that King Peladon insists on the importance of helping Peladon “raise ourselves from the dark ages” and of discarding religious superstition. Whatever can be said of Euroskepticism and the debate over joining the EEC, it’s a challenge to convincingly argue that the central issue in the UK’s joining is that the UK was stuck in the dark ages. It’s important to make a distinction here. There was certainly the widespread accusation that Eurosepticism was an outdated idea, and the fact that Euroskeptics talked about the need to preserve “a thousand years of history” didn’t help with the accusation that they were stuck in the past. But this is the criticism that applies to Hepesh for trying to keep Peladon out of the Galactic Federation.
What’s going on here is stranger – that King Peladon views his own civilization as hopelessly outdated and believes that it is necessary to have outside help in uplifting it. Which, if nothing else, has to be taken as a very extreme position that would fly poorly if Edward Heath had ever said anything like it. So it suggests strongly that what we are looking at is not an allegory for the UK’s accession into the EEC as such. So what are we looking at?
Actually, once you ask a question like that, you run into a bit of a… thing. It’s very much worth asking what Doctor Who actually is at this point. This is a question that’s been looming over the Pertwee era. In Season 7, Doctor Who was a show about a scientist who went to various installations and solved problems, generally ones involving alien lifeforms. The season after that, it was a show about hunting an evil counterpart to the Doctor that went to various places, including, in a one-off, another planet.
But what is it now? The season opener started as a UNIT story in the Season 7 vein, only with an English country house and a peace conference instead of a scientific installation. But it morphed into something jumping between two worlds, with UNIT in present day Earth backing up the Doctor as he fought the real threat in the future. And now we have a story that was blatantly written as a straight space story for a Doctor with a functional TARDIS, and which Terrance Dicks hurriedly tacked on an ending to get the continuity right.
In other words, we have Doctor Who in a place where it’s taking scripts in the Season 1-6 style, even though its format is still something related to the Season 7-8 style. So it’s not the format of either of those seasons, but it’s also not actually a return to the old format. Nor is it a particularly coherent new format. Certainly the show lacks any mission statement or clear declaration that this is the sort of show it is now. The audience goes four weeks thinking it’s a show about other worlds only to find out it’s still the UNIT show.
On top of that we have Peladon. Peladon is, let’s be clear, a great planet. Very possibly the best one Doctor Who has done to date. But it’s like nothing we’ve seen on Doctor Who in recent memory. With Colony in Space, yes, the story started with a traditional bit of exploration, but the overall planet was extremely sensible and easy to grasp. But fire up The Curse of Peladon and imagine what its opening scenes of a stormy pseudo-medieval castle and men in purple making speeches about galactic federations must have looked like to someone who had started watching Doctor Who with Spearhead From Space. It’s now been over three years since Doctor Who tried to build a strange alien world, and it goes back to that with zero effort to ease the viewer into it.
And on top of that, Peladon is weird even by Doctor Who standards. It’s not just the reams of purple or the frequent statues of a strange pig bear creature called “Aggedor” (which turn out to be hilariously accurate representations when we actually meet Aggedor). Nor is it the Ice Warriors, who we’ve met before, after all. It’s not even Arcturus, upon whom the Face of Boe was obviously modeled – a floating head in a vat who rolls around and gratuitously vaporizes things to show his strength.
No. It’s the thing we’ve already alluded to. Alpha Centauri. An apparently hermaphroditic character, referred to (and the Doctor corrects Jo on this, so we can assume he’s accurately reflecting convention on what is, I believe, Doctor Who’s first firmly genderqueer character) by the male pronoun, and voiced by the (female and reasonably famous for playing Grace Archer, who was spectacularly killed off on the radio soap The Archers the day that ITV launched) Ysanne Churchman, who… well… looks like a giant green penis in a cape. There’s really nothing in the preceding eight years of Doctor Who that quite prepares the viewer for a strangely high pitched giant green penis in a cape. It’s one of the most bewildering sights in Doctor Who history.
The result is that, in a way we have not seen Doctor Who do in ages, Peladon feels like a strange place where things happen. This is, in other words, a sudden return to The Web Planet’s style of showing a strange place as opposed to strange things (which the show can do quite well on Earth). And again, there are next to no concessions to the viewer to get them used to the idea that this is something Doctor Who does. We start on Peladon, and only then cut to the TARDIS where the Doctor says he’s got it working again while an improbably prudishly dressed Jo Grant insists that she has a date with Mike Yates. (One can only assume she’s bearding for him.)
So what we get is a story that is simultaneously pushing in two very different directions – on the one hand towards a striking depiction of strangeness, on the other towards an equally striking depiction of the real world. And what’s really, incredibly strange about The Curse of Peladon is that it is both stranger and more real world than anything yet in the Pertwee era.
The place to start untangling this, ironically, is the bit that Brian Hayles didn’t write – the decision to declare this a mission for the Time Lords. We haven’t really talked about them much since their first appearance, so let’s break this out again in detail. When they first appeared, we observed that the role of the Time Lords appears to be the maintenance of the proper order of time. But since then, there seems to be a somewhat stranger game in play.
Even if we ignore the Master as a wholesale renegade – though we can’t, quite, for reasons we’ll see shortly – the Time Lords since their first appearance have seemed odd. Colony in Space can be accounted for fairly straightforwardly, as at least the Master stole information from them and they had to stop him. But Terror of the Autons, with its Magritte-inspired Time Lord, is far more puzzling. Here the Time Lords send a clearly mischievous agent to talk to the Doctor and warn him about the Master. Clearly, then, they know exactly where the Master is. And yet they are content to let this meddling renegade run around freely with only the Doctor to oppose him. And now we have them sending the Doctor seemingly to clear up a small political disruption on a relatively backwater planet. Is there anything we can possibly do to have this look like something other than just shoehorning the Time Lords into whatever plot contrivance is needed?
Yes, actually, we can. But it requires some thought about what we mean by “time.” Specifically, it means sidestepping the question of time as a scientific phenomenon – the question of how time works in a physics sense. Let us remember, after all, that the Time Lords are apparently counterparts to other conceptual lords such as the War Lords. War is not a phenomenon of physics – it’s a social phenomenon. And if we want to go further, we should remember that there is still that implied connection between the Doctor and the Land of Fiction.
So if we were to think thoroughly about the Time Lords and the series to date, much more than thinking about wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey questions – which don’t really make their first appearance in the series until the end of season nine – we’d find ourselves thinking about time as a social phenomenon – as, in essence, a synonym for history. But even here, this clearly does not mean “making sure everything that has happened in the past remains consistent,” since the Time Lords have here seen fit to send the Doctor to deal with something that is not visibly in danger from any anachronistic elements.
But what if we took history in a more Marxist, dialectical sense, in which we took the view that history trends inevitably towards certain outcomes. For our purposes, they need not be overtly Marxist outcomes – one can imagine that the dialectic of history proceeds towards anarcho-capitalism or pastafarianism just as easily. But what if the Time Lords are meant to preserve and maintain this sense of progress for all intelligent life in the universe. In this view, we would take the view that the ideology offered by the Doctor – which is basically, at this point in the show, somewhere in the vicinity of Colony in Space’s science puritanism – is historically inevitable (since he is working for the Time Lords). Which means that organizations like the Federation which promote compatible ideologies will, over time, win out over backwards, superstitious, or un-scientific attitudes such as Hepesh’s, as well as the destructive greed of Arcturus. And that in this case, the Time Lords for whatever reason decided to send the Doctor to make sure this process worked correctly.)
Thus the way to look at Peladon is not as an allegory, but rather as a story in which the same historical processes at work in Britain in 1972 are shown in another context. The alienness is there to stress the inevitability of these processes – to show that superstition succumbs to reason in all cases. The Federation and Peladon are clearly a similar situation to the EEC and the UK, but the similarity is based on nothing except for the necessary arc of history. It’s not an allegory, but nor is it a mere parable about alienness, as Tat Wood suggests. Rather, it’s a story that attempts to illustrate a relevant moral force – a story that tries to argue what the zeitgeist (a word I use in its fullest meaning) is.
The biggest piece of evidence for this reading of the story being about the inevitability of progress, of course, is the Ice Warriors. The big trick of this story, after all, is that the Doctor (and the audience) wrongly suspect the Ice Warriors of villainy when in fact they’re among the good guys, having renounced their former ways. But remember exactly what this means – that they have gone from monsters to people. They are, in other words, walking illustrations of the fact that progress exists. This is something we’ve never seen before in Doctor Who, and now that we have it seems so utterly obvious and necessary. Of course monsters get reformed.
This also goes a long way towards explaining the Time Lords objection to the Doctor – there he is slaughtering monsters (and remember the willingness he had to kill the Ice Warriors on their last appearance) when monsters, in at least some cases, are just people who haven’t engaged in their full historical development yet. Thus he was sent to Earth until he could learn to do better, and here he shows that he can.
Indeed, perhaps this is why the Time Lords sent the Doctor. Later fan speculation, based largely on the same logic that brought us Season 6B, has the use of the Doctor for missions like this down to a need to maintain plausible deniability for the Time Lords. But there’s no real evidence for that reading of the Time Lords at this point in the series. Whereas there is, as we’ve discussed at length, evidence for a reading that the Doctor is stuck on Earth to learn a lesson. More likely than not, this is simply a test to see if the Doctor is ready to have his TARDIS back. The Time Lords picked something they wanted to nudge, and instead of using whatever their normal means are, decided to send the Doctor. And as an added bonus, there was a species around the Doctor had recently casually slaughtered that was at a much more civilized point in their history than when he’d met them. So that would be a good way of testing him. (And it’s a mixed bag – he jumps to conclusions, and never apologizes for it. So perhaps a little more time cooling his heels.)
There are, of course, issues left to deal with. The puzzling policies of the Time Lords towards the Master, for instance, still fail to make sense even with what we understand from this story. And the fact that the embrace of historical inevitability has more than a whiff of imperialism to it disturbs. (Here come the nice enlightened people to do the dirty work of uplifting you savages.)
But again, the show is rapidly developing more and more tools to deal with the world, and finding better and better ways to take a nuanced view of the world that is marked more by subtlety than moral incoherence. And perhaps more importantly, this isn’t just a matter of undoing the Pertwee era and returning to the way the show was. This isn’t the show slowly undoing the mistake of the earthbound stories. This is the show traveling through the earthbound stories, and coming out the other side as something stronger and better than it was going in.