Incremental progress meets Zeno’s Paradox

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. Sheโ€™s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. cupofassam
    December 16, 2011 @ 2:15 am

    "a brief list of authors that I have read at length and understood: Jacques Derrida…"

    Now, few of my colleagues in the a School of English where I work could pull off that sentence with a straight face. Bravo. But, seeing as you're pretty much right about the state of Arts and Humanities now they've been more or less privatised, I'll do my bit and buy your book, because I love your blog and debt accrued for education is a terrible thing .


  2. Andrew Hickey
    December 16, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    Have bought the Smashwords version, and I'll buy all the others from Smashwords as they come out in that format. I don't always agree with what you write here (I thought your argument with Millennium over 'big-ass science' came perilously close to outright trolling, frankly, and was unworthy of you) enough of it is good enough that it's definitely worth the money.


  3. Andrew Hickey
    December 16, 2011 @ 4:23 am

    "More problematic is his use of the phrase "Pyramidical Hierarchy" to describe something that cannot possibly have an apex, a sentence in which the overwhelming majority of interpretations simply have to take the premise that Graham Williams does not know what words mean."

    I think it's actually somewhat comprehensible. A pyramid of infinite size would never have an apex, but could have an infinite number of infinitely close approximations to an apex.


    December 16, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    Hmm… my comments using my Google ID appear to be getting spam-trapped (and not just comments from today, either…). Anything you can do to fix this on your end, Philip?

    Have bought the Smashwords version, and I'll buy all the others from Smashwords as they come out in that format. I don't always agree with what you write here (I thought your argument with Millennium over 'big-ass science' came perilously close to outright trolling, frankly, and was unworthy of you) enough of it is good enough that it's definitely worth the money.


  5. Dan
    December 16, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    Would it be a fair summary of the sentence quoted to say that reality is like the internet in so far as it doesn't have a "front page"?


  6. Herms
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    More problematic is his use of the phrase "Pyramidical Hierarchy" to describe something that cannot possibly have an apex, a sentence in which the overwhelming majority of interpretations simply have to take the premise that Graham Williams does not know what words mean.

    Maybe I haven't had enough coffee (or perhaps too much), but the Graham Williams quote seems relatively straight forward to me. Surely his whole point is being intentionally paradoxical: Pyramidal Hierarchies have apexes by their nature, but an infinite such hierarchy couldn't, because it goes on forever and so there would always be something further above. Hence why eternity and infinity don't allow for absolute authority. Williams' real confusion in my view is in conflating Pyramidal Hierarchies with actual, physical pyramids.


  7. Adam B
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:44 am

    This is another example of your best work, especially your closing thoughts on punk and post-punk. It's probably too much to add to your existing alchemical framework, but I'd suggest that the Hindu conception of Shiva as god of both destruction and rebirth is also helpful for understanding a 'third way' beyond the binary of order and chaos.


  8. Elizabeth Sandifer
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:49 am

    Right. I mean, the problem is that an infinite pyramid is still going to be defined by its apex, as each level of a pyramid's size is dictated by the adjacent levels. A pyramidical heirarchy is always going to have an apex; it's a base it doesn't necessarily have.


  9. Andrew Hickey
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:51 am

    Not necessarily. It could have a base and no apex. Base layer – 2 units. Next layer – 1 unit. Next layer – 0.5 units. And so on. Never gets to a last layer, so never has an apex, but it's definitely a pyramid with a base.


  10. Elizabeth Sandifer
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    That's just Xeno's Paradox though.


  11. Alex Wilcock
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    One of the fascinating things about Graham Williams is his own inconsistency: thought of as the ‘funny producer’, several people he worked with (not just, obviously, Tom) thought he has no sense of humour; he wanted to reintroduce ambiguity, so he went for Manichean dualism. And then there’s that memo you’ve deconstructed, of course, whether or not he still agreed with it all once the ideas were fully formed a year later, and whether or not Anthony Read and his other writers agreed with it in terms of what was transmitted; there’s good reason to think Bob Holmes certainly didn’t. Williams seemed to have an odd idea that the Doctor could only be being ‘responsible’ if he was answering to some sort of authority, rather than making up his own mind, then gave him the biggest authority to report to and put him on a mission from God. Who turns out to be a bit of a bastard (and gives a chilly threat that’s much more scary to the Doctor than just killing him). So, at least in terms of what aired in 1978-9, it was a lot more ambiguous than definitely good versus evil or order versus chaos (and you may or may not be right about how chaos doesn’t fit into dualism, but that’s not to say it’s not what some of the creative minds on the series thought at the time). It was only really in 1983 that everything was made painfully obvious for the viewer.

    Fortunately, as you say, they hired Bob Holmes first, got a sublimely good script, and he took the piss. I know you suggest his target’s mainly Star Wars, but I’ve written at length before that it seems more plausible that in The Ribos Operation he’s just stirring it about Doctor Who, as he did several times before and after, in being given a grandiose brief and deliberately satirising the ‘black and white’ of it from the first. He can’t “reject” it, but he can certainly send it up. Summoned by the ultimate force of law and order, the Doctor sides with the first crooks to hand, and instead of the story being about portentous doom, it’s a funny con caper. Good observations about the the reflections and scales all the way down, and I suspect (by suggesting that both the Seeker and Binro are right, for example) Bob’s refusal to give definitive answers is a deliberate statement about free will as opposed to doing what you’re told. Which might all fit in with your entertainingly plausible point about Romana being the audience not taking the story seriously, as well.

    I can’t agree with you about the Graff symbolising the Black Guardian, though; I’ve always taken him as Bob writing a character who’s enormously self-important and thinks he’s the centre of the plot, whereas in fact he doesn’t matter at all and it’s the scruffy con-man who’s significant, and so another oblique critique of the producer’s wish to make the series about Terribly Important Beings (and as the Graff and the White are the only two characters who want to boss everyone about and complain that things have got out of kilter and need to be restored to how they were, if anything he seems more White than Black). At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Graff is blatantly Bob putting the boot into the Robin Hood legend. Again!

    All that, and the history, music, and the hats are terrific, too.

    Oh, and despite the shipping charges when it’s not on, I do intend to order your first volume after Christmas…


  12. Aaron
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:56 am

    I never interpreted the White Guardian's threat as a threat to kill the Doctor. He says that "nothing will happen to the Doctor." For a being of pure order, it seems like what he means here is that the Doctor will never have adventures, but simply land places and have a boring time, for the rest of his life. Which fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the White Guardian, and also gives us a glimpse into the Doctor's psychology, since this is clearly a terrible fate in his mind. Anyways, I just think it's a very well thought out piece of dialogue.


  13. Anne L.
    December 16, 2011 @ 5:57 am

    I haven't read the whole entry yet, but I would just like to say that the paperbook edition is indeed handsome and worth buying even if you have the electronic version, if you're the type that likes to collect books. I bought the Kindle version for myself and the paperback for my sister for Christmas. After seeing the paperback, I'm now considering buying another one for myself after the holidays.


  14. Gavin
    December 16, 2011 @ 6:27 am

    It's been a while since I've seen it, but unless I'm misremembering, doesn't the Doctor recognize the accent that Garron is affecting, rather than his real accent? What he recognizes is itself a performance. Also, the fact that he recognizes it as a Somerset accent (unless I'm misremembering) is significant: Somerset suggests Mummerset.


  15. fdfc49e4-466d-11e0-963e-000bcdcb8a73
    December 16, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    Just ordered the print edition of this glorious blog, sir! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also, just wanted to point out that amidst everything else he's doing here, Bob Holmes snuck in the first same-sex kiss in "Doctor Who" here under everyone's noses… ;-D


  16. Dr. Happypants
    December 16, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    Various things:

    1. This is some of your best stuff yet; I'd already thought of "The Ribos Operation" as clever and funny, but you've helped me see it's actually cleverer and funnier. You know, what you do here on this blog is more valuable to more people than what most professors end up doing…

    2. Graham Williams clearly makes more sense than Jacques Lacan. The Zeno's paradox pyramid makes solid mathematical sense–like an inverted Hilbert's Hotel–but Lacan butchered mathematics as badly as a LaRouchie pretty much any time he said a word about it in a way that isn't even helpful metaphorically. If you want to see math used metaphorically in psychoanalysis in a way that actually makes at least some sense, check out Ignacio Matte Blanco.

    3. What's interesting about Binro is that he isn't modelled after the actual Bruno (the greatest magus of the Renaissance) nearly as much as he is after the iconic conception of Bruno as a proto-scientist speculating about other worlds. Even in a narrative universe where gods (or Guardians) are real, and the Seeker's powers may actually work, the virtues of Doctor Who are still associated with atheists, rationalists, and heretics: as you say yourself, the Doctor finally meets God, but loathes Him. It's an extraordinarily strong form of atheism: the very idea of God is intrinsically unworthy. We're firmly in Dawkins territory here, or for that matter Lucretius territory, who said more or less the same stuff 2000 years earlier. It's not atheism as a factual statement but as a moral imperative.

    4. The Doctor's true mission, like NASA's, is to kill God.

    5. The hats really are quite terrific.


  17. inkdestroyedmybrush
    December 16, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    Philip – just ordered my copy as well, happy to support the blog and your writing. Thanks for giving so many hours of enjoyment in reading these posts, regardless if I always agree with them or not! (still disagreeing over Pyramids of Mars, but i'll get over it)

    That being said, this is one of your best posts, and a perfect dissection of the many different levels of the story and how they work.

    Couple of things: I've always taken the White Guardian's threat as being truly literal: the Doctor, stuck in the Tardis perhaps, never ever able to land anywhere again. Limbo. Utter boredom, worse than that which made him originally leave Gallifrey. Way worse.

    I agree that the Doctor has become, not so much an agent for chaos, but for simply keeping things moving and interesting, for free will, for being independent. The white guardian and black guardian are so entrenched in the duality aspect of their thinking that they can't conceive of a different way. They are the antithesis of lateral thinking.

    For all the Robert Holmes character in the world of Doctor Who, Binro is one of the all time greats. Seriously.


  18. WGPJosh
    December 16, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    If I could support you more Phil I would, I really would, but sadly I'm in your position too: An unemployed and unemployable academic with a very expensive and very esoteric degree. What I will do is buy multiple copies of your books, both in Kindle and dead tree version. Hope that helps you in some way.

    That being said, this is one of my favourite posts of yours yet. I was giddy with anticipation waiting for you to get to the Graham Williams/Anthony Read/Douglas Adams era and it was well worth the wait. This is a provocative and incredibly nuanced analysis that helps me see one of my favourite stories in a new way. Also, major, MAJOR props for mentioning Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan: Two of my favourite writers and thinkers of all time and your subsequent takedown of Graham Williams had me literally laughing out loud. Bravo sir, my respect for you continually grows.

    Today was just full of my favourite things: Siouxsie Sioux, Doctor Who, Order vs. Chaos, philosophical anarchy, Graham Williams, Anthony Read, Douglas Adams, Tom Baker, Mary Tamm, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and yes, even Robert Holmes. The fact you found a way to wind them all together just puts a smile on my face and brightened what had otherwise been a very dour day for me.

    Good luck to you sir, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the rest of your take on The Key to Time!


  19. WGPJosh
    December 16, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    One more thing, Phil: you also have a link and hearty recommendation on my website for whatever that's worth, though I have a large feeling you get much, much more traffic than I do.


  20. BerserkRL
    December 16, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    I think more than Star Wars he's likely to have had in mind Moorcock's Eternal Champion novels, where there's an eternal conflict between Law and Chaos but each is dangerous if it grows too powerful, and while the hero may serve one or the other as circumstances dictate, he ultimately serves the Balance.

    In which regard it's interesting that in Moorcock's historical-ish/high-fantasy stories (e.g. Elric, Corum) it's usually Chaos that has the upper hand and Law that needs a boost from the hero, whereas in his more contemporary stories (Cornelius, Karaquazian) it's Law that's more likely to be the bad guy(s).


  21. BerserkRL
    December 16, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    In other news, I realised for the first time this week that the opening scene of "The Beast Below" is a reference to a 1986 Bonnie Langford / Colin Baker publicity photo.


  22. BerserkRL
    December 16, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    I plugged your Hartnell book and Wonder Woman project here.


  23. Anna
    December 16, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    @Herms and @Andrew Hickey – On a given pyramid, infinite or otherwise, you can always prove an apex exists using calculus (a series approaching infinity) – i.e. the solution to Xeno's Paradox. A diminishing series converges.

    A base, on the other hand… sure, we can extend in that direction forever.

    Also, I can't help but note that that sentence is disturbingly close to some of the stuff I wrote when I was 13 and high off of incense and Gnosticism and Wicca.


  24. William Whyte
    December 16, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    I too thought this was an exceptional entry, bringing out the resonances of the players in The Ribos Operation all the way down.

    Having said that, this is still not a story I love (though I love that you were able to bring such weight to it). Like a lot of later Holmes stories, it has the weakness that we know who we're against but we don't know who we're for. If the Doctor hadn't showed up and Garron had successfully stiffed the Graf… so what?

    In general, this is a weakness of the Graham Williams stories: they often have an intriguing central idea, they often have great dialogue, but they miss the cheap but vital pleasure of giving the audience a conflict to care about.


  25. Dougie
    December 17, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

    Last time I watched it, I got tired of two fruity thesps obviously enjoying riffing off one another to the exclusion of the audience (me). Readers may not be aware that this season was trailed in Radio Times with a lengthy feature article introducing Mary Tamm as Romana and mini-interviews with previous "Who Girls". This was a clearly defined New Direction, further signalled by the casting of Iain Cuthbertson who was a big tv star, thanks to "Budgie" and "Sutherland's Law". Unfortunately, I find Garron the least appealing of Holmes's crooks.


  26. Adam Riggio
    December 17, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    I always considered this story one of my favourites from the Baker era, but you've opened my eyes to so many other layers of understanding that I'm indebted to you once again.

    I bought the ebook version of your Hartnell Years book yesterday. It's a wonderful collection. I'm a trifle sad the Galaxy 4 episode was discovered so soon after your release date, though. But that's Doctor Who: always creeping farther ahead than its audience (or even its creators) knows.


  27. Alan
    December 18, 2011 @ 12:57 am

    It's interesting to me to review the Black & White Guardian concept right now, because I've been attracted for some time to the idea that one or the other of them is behind the current multi-season story arc with Matt Smith. After defeating Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, more Daleks plus Davros, and finally the Timelords, the only place left to go that is sufficiently cosmic is the Guardians. Also, the whole "Silence Will Fall" things makes me think of the White Guardian desiring a silent universe devoid of activity, and the Doctor having to fight against the White Guardian and in the service of the Black Guardian would make an interesting reversal of the set-up from the classic series, since Eleven is clearly being played as a force for chaos and change rather than order.

    In a similar vein, I've also wondered what role, if any, the Guardians might have played in the Time War. Since the main combatants are the Time Lords (who had been portrayed as an ossified force for cosmic conformity) and the Daleks (who want to reduce the universal population to exactly one species), I don't really see a role for the Black Guardian. Indeed, I've thought that perhaps the entire war represented the White Guardian's attempt to figure out the most efficient way to eliminate change — at the end, both races were working towards the elimination of all other life besides themselves. Viewed this way, it is the Doctor who represents the interest of the Black Guardian (thought most likely unwittingly) as he wipes the board clean before either faction can claim victory.

    Which, as I read over all that sounds like fanwanking, but given Moffat's love of classic continuity, I can't believe he's never considered doing something with the Guardians. I mean, they've name-checked the Eternals, what, two or three times now?


  28. Alan
    December 18, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    Also, while I love this site, I must say it pains me that I didn't discover it's existence until last week, which means I missed Leela's entire run (except Invasion of Time). Granted, I've read everything back to the first entry, but it doesn't seem worthwhile to comment on posts from several weeks back.


  29. William Whyte
    December 18, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    Alan, I dip back every so often to see if new comments have come up (particularly if they're referred back to in comments on more recent entries, hem hem). And you could always affect Phil's thinking in time for the book version. Don't hold back!


  30. BerserkRL
    December 19, 2011 @ 7:08 am



  31. Henry R. Kujawa
    April 20, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    Philip Sandifer:
    "He is cut off from Ribosian society because of his belief in a world beyond what Ribos sees – a clear parallel to the Doctor's own exile. And, on a basic level, surely all heretics are friends of the Doctor's."

    This makes me glad I read the "PageFillers" site, where they have posted several dozen reviews of each story. Almost everyone went on a bit about Binro, but nobody pointed out what you did here. So he does "make sense" being there.

    On the other hand, only one person mention Prentiss Hancock, who, apparently, is a much better actor when he's given much less to do!

    "THE RIBOS OPERATION" has long been a fave of mine. It was, oddly enough, the very 1st story shown in Philly in "movie" format. As I was in the process of taping the show (at a rate of 11 episodes per tape– yep, that's how much you could fit at the medium "LP" speed which they no longer build into VCRs) you can imagine my shock when the story just kept right on going past where the cliffhanger should have been but wasn't. Oh my God! Oh my God! I had to slap another tape in to gget the rest of the story, then, wait until they reran it so I could get the entire thing on one tape. Grrrrrrr.

    Leela took a long time to grow on me. Romana I liked instantly. I mean, even quicker than Sarah-Jane, though not quite as intensely. Romana's introductory scene, like that of several other companions, is one one her best-ever. It's sas how many times companions get great intros, and then later writers do so little with them the actors wind up wanting to leave– as Mary Tamm did after only one year. (Gee, just like Liz Shaw.)

    Funny how other things can influence your reactions over time. When I watched this again 2 years ago (and I just watched it again tonight), something hit me during Romana's 1st scene that I hadn't seen before– and it had nothing to do with the show itself. There I was, watching her, so "smart", so well-spoken, that particular way of saying words and sentences… and it hit me. And I yellwed at the TV, "Oh my God! It's HERMOINE GRANGER– all grown up!"

    You know, it's funny how so many actors I've seen on shows like LOST IN SPACE, BATMAN, STAR TREK, DOCTOR WHO, I always remember for their appearances on these show, no matter what else they do, and usually they stand out instantly in anything else they turn up on. And yet, Mary Tamm turned up in a POIROT with David Suchet, and more than once, I had trouble even recognizing her! I guess she's an even better actress than I already took her for, to be able to just "disappear" into a role like that.

    "My name is Romanadvoratrelundar." "We're so sorry about that, is there anything we can do?" (It's not only what he says, but the way he says it, to emphasize that he and K-9 are a team and she's an intruder.)

    Now if you want a really disturbing blast, check out Iain Cuthbertson's appearance on CAMPION, where he plays a member of the British Secret Service… who isn't on the up-and-up (and before the story is over, tries to MURDER the show's hero).

    I do wish they'd found a way to "shoot" the monster so you would have seen less of it…


  32. Austin Loomis
    August 22, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    “Ribos is recognizably a medieval planet with obvious parallels to Earth. So not only do the same conflicts play out on different scales, they play out across different iterations of history. Similarly, the conflict between Ribos’s gods is seen to simply be the shifting of the planet’s very long seasons, and so the conflicts further play out in the realm of man and the realm of nature.”

    I read this passage in my eBook copy, on a recent drive from Central PA to Central MI, and made the annotation “Ribos = Planetos?”


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