|What do you mean they’re monsters? They’re blue! I|
thought monsters were all green. Or yellow.
It’s April 9th, 2005. Tony Christie is still at number one, helpfully illustrating the problem of these paragraphs when the stories are weekly. Elvis is in there too, with, actually, a different song. You’ve also got Mariah Carey, Kylie, and Will Smith. Albums have New Order’s Waiting for the Sirens’ Call and Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies to Paralyze in the top ten as well. News-wise, in the last week Tony Blair called for a general election on May 5th, John Paul II was buried, and Eric Rudolph agreed to plead guilty to the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. While the day this story airs, Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles.
And on television it’s The Unquiet Dead. There’s a lot to discuss about this episode. Unfortunately, there’s also a huge controversy hanging over it that serves as an elephant in the room. It’s going to dominate comments, I suspect, and, more to the point, would dominate comments whether I talked about it or not. So let’s just get on with it, shall we?
This is the episode that Lawrence Miles, in the course of his blog about Doctor Who, absolutely ripped to shreds. He ripped it to shreds in a high profile way that created breathtaking backlash against him. And the crux of his argument is a solid one. Basically, he objects to the script’s handling of the Gelth, and specifically to the way in which, after the Doctor has made a terribly moving speech shouting down Rose’s complaint that it’s just not right for the Gelth to ride around in human corpses, the Gelth are shown to be evil after all, thus undermining all the great stuff the Doctor said about a different morality being valid. And, you know, Miles has a point. It’s a really good speech on the Doctor’s part, and it kind of sucks that the episode undermines it. Conceptually, at least, the episode would have been much stronger if it had managed to keep the Gelth as an apparent threat through more of the story only to reveal them as poor asylum seekers at the end.
But Miles takes the episode to real task, viewing this as a betrayal of what Doctor Who is and being as bad as an imagined “American TV show made in the late ’60s, which claimed that dark-skinned aliens weren’t quite smart enough to run their own society and thus shouldn’t be allowed a vote.” It’s a damning critique, and one that we have to take seriously, especially because, let’s face it, I’ve not exactly been Mark Gatiss’s biggest fan thus far. I do think his scripts tend towards an unfortunately reactionary tone, and that he’s one of the weaker regular writers. So, you know. There’s all that.
Trouble is, Miles is wrong here. Or, at least, insufficiently right. This is going to require some narrative theory, I’m afraid, because underlying this debate are some really old debates in literary theory. So let’s actually go to the second part of Miles’s critique, where he says this:
“Even those who’ve agreed with me have said something along the lines of “mind you, I don’t think Gatiss is actually a racist…”, as if it needed to be said. I’m fairly sure he isn’t; I’m fairly sure it was just careless, sloppy thinking, his usual habit of making everything in the universe as unpleasant as possible, but this time missing the fairly bleeding obvious subtext of what he was writing. He was thoughtless. People who write for massively-rated television programmes can’t afford to be thoughtless. The episode can only be read, right here and right now, as party-politically nasty. Writers have a duty to get this kind of thing right. No excuses.”
What’s at stake here, in other words, is not so much the question of “Is Mark Gatiss a UKIP supporter” as “does it matter.” Because, of course, lots of the audience isn’t going to know Mark Gatiss from a hole in the wall, they’re going to be judging the episode on its own merits. So if the episode looks racist when taken on its own Gatiss’s intentions don’t matter. As the social justice maxim goes, intent isn’t magic.
But there’s a larger and older issue lurking here – the lit-crit concept of the intentional fallacy. This is a product of the so-called New Criticism, which is, as its name suggests, terribly old-fashioned, dating back nearly a century now. The phrase “intentional fallacy” dates to 1946, and refers to the supposed fallacy of assuming that an author’s intent has anything whatsoever to do with the meaning of the work. Because, of course, intent doesn’t directly encode into language, and is not meaningfully a part of the text (usually a poem, when New Critics are about). If you have to go read interviews with the author to understand the work then the author is simply Doing It Wrong. Instead we derive meaning by closely reading the text.
All well and good, but the New Critics took it rather far, also declaring that the reader’s reactions were off limits (the affective fallacy), and ultimately trying to pin singular and absolute meanings to texts. Which is all well and good, but ends up puzzlingly disconnected from the actual conditions in which things are written and read, and thus seems a bit… sterile. And like it’s really just a front for English professors to tell you what to think. (Which is entertaining, as the real appeal of New Criticism, initially, was that it freed readers from the tyranny of having to know vast amounts of historical and biographical facts about writers and let them just read.)
And this is basically the viewpoint underlying Miles’s criticism: it doesn’t matter what Gatiss meant because the episode itself is horrifically xenophobic. But let’s peek forward and see if any of the subsequent eighty years or so of literary criticism has provided anything useful. Spoiler: it has, of course. The main one being some of the fruits of reader-response criticism, particularly the idea of the implied author and implied reader. (The former was formulated by Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, the latter by Wolfgang Iser in, of all things, The Implied Reader. They’re odd recommendations, but if you want to know how narrative structure works, read those and Aristotle’s Poetics and you’re basically set for life.) Basically, these are attempts to square the circle of authorial criticism, suggesting that “author” and “reader” are textual phenomena. That is, authorial intent does matter – it’s the only thing that matters, in many ways – but it has to be understood as a function of the text. The text gives clues about its author. And, perhaps more interestingly, the text gives clues about its readers; one can tell by reading a text what the work expects its readers to think at a given moment. (So, for example, while there may be readers who did not overlook the destruction of the Earth as it happened in The End of the World, the episode itself clearly assumes a viewer who doesn’t think about that scene as it’s happening beyond “ooh pretty.” The implied reader misses it, regardless of what any actual reader might do.)
How is this distinct from the New Criticism approach? Mainly in that it’s ultimately grounded not in the text as some abstract concept but as an actual thing that’s engaged in. The actual reader tries to figure out who the author is, and the actual author tries to write for who they imagine will be reading, and the implied versions are their attempts to do so. All of which is to say that when we watch something like The Unquiet Dead we are trying to figure out what Mark Gatiss thinks.
That in and of itself doesn’t mean that Mark Gatiss’s biography is particularly relevant to understanding the episode. Again, the possibility Miles assumes – that Gatiss screwed up – is always there. It’s possible that the implied author of The Unquiet Dead is radically different from Mark Gatiss. But there’s an added wrinkle here. The Unquiet Dead is stitched into the fabric of a television event taking place on April 9th, 2005. So it’s something that led directly into Doctor Who Confidential on BBC Three (and yes, of course we’re going to talk about Confidential. More than once), that got coverage in Doctor Who Magazine and Radio Times, that has a DVD commentary track, and that is part of the steadily unfolding event that is The Return Of Doctor Who To BBC One. To treat the text as just being the chain of bits that make up the DVD files is fundamentally misleading: the episode is more than that.
On top of that, we’ve seen in both Rose and The End of the World that Doctor Who involves watching with a heavy awareness of narrative convention and the practice of writing. Doctor Who is written for a genre-savvy audience. Way back – in the entry on The Web Planet, fittingly enough – I made mention of a moment on the DVD commentary for Bad Wolf in which Julie Gardner expresses hope that children wouldn’t be so cynical as to assume that there was no way Rose was dead, and Davies said “I don’t think that’s cynical, I think that’s wise.” Which is to say, Davies is very much writing for an audience he hopes is knowledgeable enough about how writing works to see the tricks and seams that hold episodes of Doctor Who together. This is not a mode of narrative based on readers getting taken in by the illusion. The strings are supposed to be visible here.
All of which is to say that if we have a situation where nobody whatsoever, including Lawrence Miles, actually makes the pro-xenophobia reading of The Unquiet Dead while believing it to be Gatiss’s intent then is it meaningful to say that this reading exists? If there is not only no evidence whatsoever that anybody has ever looked at The Unquiet Dead and thought “ooh, that was written by a UKIP supporter” but evidence that many people, even upon seeing that potential subtext, have concluded that it was wholly inadvertent, does it, in fact, have that subtext in any substantive fashion? And, perhaps more to the point, does the so-called “death of the author” even make sense in the context of this sort of television? Can we have fiction in which the material fact of its creation is ever-present in which the author is dead in the first place?
This is, I think, a serious question, especially because the level of formal complexity of an episode of contemporary Doctor Who makes it terribly easy to play “gotcha” on this sort of thing. When you have as many balls in the air as a typical episode of Doctor Who the prospect that some unfortunate connection is going to have a credible reading is high. We can launch at least some ethical critique at just about any episode of Doctor Who, or, for that matter, most other contemporary television programs. And at some point this gets in the way of actual progress. If everything in the culture is hopelessly and irredeemably contaminated then there’s not a lot of room for alchemy’s progress. Social justice readings are too important to waste on mere cleverness.
There is, of course, a massive side point to make here given my, shall we say, reputation. One of the things I’m at least somewhat known for is a couple of rather brutal reviews of some beloved 1960s Doctor Who serials on the grounds that they’re racist crap. Typically I’m accused of “reading too much into things” by people who dislike this. So for me to suddenly start defending Doctor Who on the grounds that it’s an over-reading may seem a bit rich. Except, crucially, that’s not what I’m doing. Rather, I’m suggesting that Miles’s critique, though not inaccurate, is an under-reading that does not read enough into The Unquiet Dead.
My contention is that the xenophobic implication of the Doctor being wrong about the Gelth is, while unquestionably present in the episode, also self-evidently a writerly mistake and, more to the point, recognizable as such to any reasonably engaged viewer. Even if you cut out all of the cultural paratext – and I don’t think there’s any legitimate value in doing so – it’s still apparent just watching the episode that the Doctor’s speech to Rose is meant to hold moral weight that is not undermined by the Gelth’s treachery, and that the writer of this episode is, in practice, not an anti-immigrant xenophobe. To any viewer savvy enough to get the basic interplay of concepts within this episode in the first place the fact that the undermining of the Doctor’s speech goes unanswered clearly reads as a mistake in the same way that, for instance, the Boatswain’s disappearance during The Curse of the Black Spot or UNIT dating are clearly mistakes. Or, to put it another way, if The Unquiet Dead is meant to be about xenophobia and how immigrants are evil and will destroy your culture, it does such a searingly terrible job of it as to be breathtaking.
Which brings us to the episode itself. In many ways the most striking thing about the episode is actually properly a part of The End of the World, namely the trailer for it. After The End of the World’s giddy escalation of what Doctor Who can do, the trailer for The Unquiet Dead was a delightful shock. After forty-five minutes of getting Doctor Who and super-weird aliens to work we suddenly drop to “next time, period drama!” It’s cheeky and impish and brilliant – a decision to go from one extreme to another just to show you can.
It’s also, of course, classic Doctor Who. The Web Planet itself was, after all, followed immediately by The Crusade. Though where The End of the World was neo-Hartnell, and really more to the point neo-Lambert, this is more accurately neo-Hinchcliffe. The basic set of signifiers the story is playing in are so vintage Doctor Who that it almost doesn’t matter that we’ve hardly ever actually seen them combined in precisely this way; Ghost Light is, off the top of my head, the only outright Victorian ghost story Doctor Who prior to this. But the real source of inspiration is clearly The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which this story nicks from with reckless abandon.
(This, perhaps, rather than Gatiss is the “author” of the xenophobia. This story is haunted by the Hinchcliffe era, and most specifically by a spectacularly racist story within the Hinchcliffe era. Is it any surprise that the Hinchcliffe era’s ghosts should creep in as well? This was the most basic lesson of the Hinchcliffe era, recall. History repeats itself. That time can be rewritten does not imply that it has an author. There are no Lords of Time to be had anywhere here.)
But, of course, we’re introducing new things to the Hinchcliffe template. Most obviously we have Rose. Though to be fair, it’s not as though Talons of Weng-Chiang just cast the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes and got on with it. Much of the charm of Talons is the presence of Leela and the delight with which Robert Holmes throws the “savage” against Victorian gentlemanly values. And Rose very much assumes Leela’s role in the story, right down to the detail of focusing on her clothing as a mark of barbarism.
But in this case Rose is used not just to poke fun at Victorian values but to comment on class structures within it. On the one hand Rose is an anarchic figure in her own right – observe the scene where she yells at Sneed for copping a feel while the Doctor grins approvingly. Like the Doctor she’s a transgressive figure within this narrative space. Notably, this is the first time in the series where they have both been transgressive figures, and, equally tellingly, the first episode not to begin with them or with a recap, but rather with the world they’ll be arriving in. And so part of her role is to confront the Victorian era with her brash working class charm.
But intriguingly, in doing so she loses some of herself. That’s what’s so interesting about the conversation between her and Gwyneth: no matter how much similarity they might find in their upbringings, Rose always views herself as superior to Gwyneth. Not, mind you, in a malicious way, but in a deeply patronizing way. And this is made explicit – Gwyneth says, flat out, that she knows that Rose thinks she’s stupid. And this is an interesting development. In The End of the World Rose is mistaken as upper class by Raffalo, but that’s the extent of it. We, as audience members, recognize that Rose has been mistaken as posh and that Raffalo is, in fact, a comforting point of familiarity for Rose. In that regard it’s actually the past that’s more alienating to Rose, as the character who is most similar to her in the narrative, Gwyneth, rejects that similarity, and, more to the point, rejects it in such a way as to show that Rose tacitly rejects it as well.
This is the first place where we can see that the xenophobia reading is clearly a mistake. Because the parallelism leading up to it is too artful. Rose’s argument about the indecency of letting the Gelth ride around in people’s corpses is framed in terms of her own sense of self-righteous superiority to Gwyneth. So it’s not just a point about immigrants and diversity, but one about privilege in general. So knocking out just one of those two pillars is insufficient. Even if the Gelth do turn out to be evil, unless Rose’s sense of superiority to Gwyneth is also shown to be valid or correct it’s not a meaningful argument. And, of course, it’s the exact opposite – the ending reaffirms the fact that Rose is dead wrong in thinking that she’s better than Gwyneth. So the logic by which she rejects the Gelth is shown to still be wrong. The story clearly does not intend the audience to read otherwise.
But if Rose’s sense of superiority to Gwyneth is ultimately rejected by the story, it’s difficult to argue seriously that Gwyneth reigns supreme within the narrative. She does, after all, die, and, more to the point, dies because of her own mistaking of the Gelth as angels. She’s as disastrously and conspicuously wrong about them as the Doctor is. Except where the Doctor has a moral point that can survive in the abstract, all Gwyneth has is a failure to understand them as something that comes from outside her narrow and blinkered experience.
Which is the other reason the xenophobia critique fails, of course. Because if one takes any sort of holistic view of the episode it’s clear that the entire thing is about the virtue of new experiences, diversity, and an open mind. Even with one moment that cuts against that, it’s impossible to read an episode whose larger point is blatantly about how people who refuse to entertain the possibility that there might be more going on than they assume are wrong. Indeed, this is clearly where Gatiss’s mistake with the Gelth comes from: he misses the fact that he’s built a political subtext about asylum seekers because he’s too focused on making sure that Gwyneth gets punished for thinking “angels” when the correct answer is “space aliens.” But it is clearly a mistake – a bum note that the entire rest of the episode cuts against. That’s what the ending with Dickens reinvigorated means: that embracing new ideas and new worldviews is the secret to life.
Ah yes. Dickens. We should probably talk about him a bit. On one level he’s straightforward. This is, of course, the sort of thing Doctor Who does: have the Doctor team up with famous historical personages to fight aliens. Except, wait a moment. Just how often has Doctor Who actually done this? Sure, famous historical figures were the norm in the Hartnell era when the show was doing, you know, historicals. And it’s the norm now. But between then the only times the Doctor teamed up with famous people from history were actually in Season Twenty-Two: The Mark of the Rani and Timelash. Which, if I may be so bold, one is essentially guaranteed that the Colin Baker era is not, in fact, where Davies and Gatiss are getting their ideas from.
So what we have is one of those things that feels obvious without actually being so. Much like the prospect of the companion ever having any contact with their life on Earth again, it’s something that there’s no real reason why isn’t a common thing for the series to do, it’s just, you know, not something the series had ever done. The Doctor talks about meeting famous people all the time, but we basically never saw it happen. It’s the new series’ favorite game: Doctor Who like you falsely remember it.
The bigger fact, however, is that we have Simon Callow playing Dickens. It’s one thing to have Charles Dickens appear, but it’s quite another to have Simon Callow, a proper respected English actor in the old-fashioned sense of that image, showing up on Doctor Who. It’s not that major actors hadn’t done Doctor Who before, but Simon Callow is a caliber of actor who really hadn’t. It was a massive statement of intent by the new series. But more than that, it was a commitment to a certain degree of seriousness. One does not cast Simon Callow if one wants to send up Dickens, nor does one cast him to just do a po-faced Dickens imitation in an otherwise flaccid and boring script. You get Simon Callow by having good material to give him. Listen to the DVD commentary – he’s open about the fact that he gets way, way too many offers to play Dickens, and singles out several little details of the production that clearly won him over, most notably the decision to start by showing Dickens tired and depressed. Callow came to the script because it respected Dickens.
Another way of putting this is to say that it respected costume drama. It’s not just dropping Doctor Who into costume drama to do a spoof. I mean, it’s obviously not “straight” costume drama either, what with the homicidal alien ghosts and all, but costume drama is taken seriously within it even as it subverts and plays with it. This is exemplified by the carriage scene in which the Doctor proclaims himself Dickens’s fan. On one level this is a mark of genuine respect – a necessary sequence of Doctor Who bowing before a representative of the great tradition of British literature. On another, however, it is unbelievably brash. Of particular note is the wonderful bit where the Doctor complains about a dull bit in Martin Chuzzlewit, and, more to the point, asserts that it’s his duty as a fan to hate bits of Dickens.
What’s audacious here is not merely the chutzpah involved in only displaying partial reverence for Dickens, but the way in which Doctor Who completely subsumes Dickens. The scene is basically shaped out of countless slightly awkward convention encounters, such that Dickens becomes essentially indistinguishable from Jon Pertwee – another part of the material legacy that leads into Doctor Who. And so the overall plot of the story becomes a case of demonstrating how Doctor Who, despite its debt to Dickens, does in fact subsume him, offering Dickens new perspectives and new opportunities previously foreclosed to him. Dickens enters the story worn out and ready to give up, and exits it exhilarated by the possibility of Doctor Who. It’s unbelievably brash – a declaration that Doctor Who isn’t just capable of enlivening the tired old tropes of contemporary British television, it’s capable of enlivening the whole of British cultural history.
What could its ambition possibly encompass next?