|City of Death is made exactly 23% better if you assume|
Richard I was one of Scaroth’s incarnations.
It’s September 29th, 1979. The Police are sending out an SOS to the world. By the sales figures it appears that rather a lot of people got their message in a bottle. So, mission accomplished then. Still, they send it out for three weeks before The Buggles notice that they are radio stars and kill them. Blondie, The Commodores, Michael Jackson, and Kate Bush also make the top ten. XTC and The Damned sit lower in the charts.
In real news, the Hong Kong MTR opens, Nigeria brings an end to military rule, and Pope John Paul II, fresh from getting the ball rolling on the eventual collapse of the autocratic government of his native Poland, goes to the United States. Tragically, he’s less successful there, though barely a week after his departure a massive gay rights march takes place in Washington DC. A tsunami hits in Nice, a tornado in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and a mob of pro-government thugs hits a newspaper and the home of the opposition leader in Malta.
While on television, we have a terribly unpopular story that no reputable fan enjoyed. No less an authority than John Peel, who later went on to helpfully fix the continuity errors introduced by Destiny of the Daleks, explains that the story is “pure farce,” that “the acting was once more appalling,” that characters were “so stupid as to be unbelievable,” that he “couldn’t believe that this was Doctor Who” and that it was “getting completely on [his] nerves.” So there you go. And to think, Miles and Wood spend two pages asking whether we should take one of his books seriously.
Speaking of Miles and Wood, this is the story in which their dueling style of review finally leaps into hilarious self-parody. Miles (quite correctly) proclaims that “it is, of course, one of the best things ever” before engaging in a review that consists almost entirely of explanations of why nothing else in the Williams era works as well as this. Wood, on the other hand, spends most of his critique explaining why Miles is wrong and the rest of the Williams era is as good as this. All well and good except for the rather massive lacunae in the middle of it whereby they both fail to talk about this story. (On the other hand, Miles, in describing how sitcoms work, does inadvertently pin down the central appeal of this section of About Time – “two people who don’t like each other, trapped in a room.”)
Continuing in my designated role as the unwanted third wheel to that particular odd couple, then, let’s look at what’s actually going on here. First of all, let’s concede a core point to Lawrence Miles. Regardless of what one thinks of the rest of the Williams era, and for my part that changes every few sentences, this is head and shoulders above not only the remainder of the era but frankly above virtually everything to have aired in the series previously. It is searingly, jaw-droppingly good, and Tat Wood misses a trick in arguing that this works for the same reasons the rest of the Williams era works. I mean, what’s good about it is wholly consistent with the rest of the Williams era, but what’s really important here is what is absent.
Here Miles is basically correct, and this gets at the central problem with the previous story, which Miles saw as a program at war with itself. It is, sure, but the war is simpler than Miles makes it out to be. Miles suggests that the problem is the tension between the program’s “tradition of fantasy adventure” and its current attempts at comedy are at fault, but no, it’s really just one of those. The weaknesses of Destiny of the Daleks were almost all because of the ways in which the story tried to be Dan Dare-style space adventure. Its flaws were that it was trying to be for sci-fi fans.
This, more than anything, is the central premise that needs to be refuted. For one thing, it’s a premise that is behind almost everything that’s going to go wrong for Doctor Who in the 1980s. Doctor Who has never been for sci-fi fans. Sure, it was sci-fi for a while – most obviously in the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean it was for sci-fi fans. The 1960s were an era where science fiction was popular in general. All sorts of stuff was popular then, and ordinary people liked science fiction. It wasn’t until the falling off of popularity after the moon landing that science fiction entered a period of being marginal and for a particular subset of fans. This, ironically, is the real legacy of Star Trek. It’s not a notable program for its popularity, it’s a notable program for its failure. It’s a notable program for the fact that only a small core of hard-core devotees liked it, as opposed to the larger, broader audiences who had been enjoying science fiction only a few years earlier.
It’s only after about 1970 that doing science fiction meant doing it “for fans,” and it’s notable that for the bulk of the 1970s Doctor Who spends almost all of its time trying to be anything but science fiction. It spends five years moonlighting as a military thriller before going off and becoming a horror series for three years. Even in the Williams era you see it trying desperately to avoid being sci-fi in the conventional sense. It’s only the popularity of Star Wars that creates the horrible gravity of sci-fi for the series. One of the most remarkable things about the period from 1975-1984 in the series is that it’s a nine year stretch in which there are only three Dalek stories despite the fact that the series had the rights to them. It was one thing for the Daleks to vanish from seasons 5-8 while Terry Nation took his ball and went to America. It’s quite another for them to vanish from seasons 13-16 when he didn’t.
But this was what the 1970s producers of Doctor Who realized – that sci-fi in its conventional sense was a marginalized ghetto of a genre that only a few die-hard adherents liked. The fact that those adherents glommed onto Doctor Who from the era where it was most sci-fi (namely seasons 3-6) wasn’t just irrelevant, it was an annoyance. You can still see vestiges of this problem if you’re foolish enough to go onto GallifreyBase (and I confess that I regularly am), where you can witness the bewildering spectacle of people complaining about The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe on the grounds that it was “too Harry Potter” and that trees with souls aren’t sci-fi. The problem with this perspective, and it’s a truly bizarre one, is that many of these people appear to genuinely believe that an explanation about biopsionic luminescence or some similar piece of made up technobabble would have made the series more entertaining – as if hearing random science prefixes smashed together is actually pleasurable unto itself. Which, I mean, clearly for some people it is, but let’s be honest, that’s a paraphilia, not an aesthetic.
So the first and foremost thing to realize about City of Death is that, like The Ribos Operation before it, it’s one of the first Doctor Who stories to learn the correct lesson from Star Wars, which was that after twenty years of science fiction being popular and another ten of it being irritatingly present due to its fetishists science fiction was so well-understood that you could just use its trappings for whatever you wanted. (This is why the moment in The Phantom Menace where the entire audience realized that the prequel trilogy was going to suck was not, as many claim, Jar Jar Binks or the poor portrayal of young Anakin, but rather the line about midachlorians, which suddenly and painfully revealed that George Lucas actually thought anyone was confused or puzzled by the question of why a Muppet in a swamp had psychic powers.)
In some past entry I noted that the central brilliance of Doctor Who is that it realizes that once you have a big establishing shot of a Dalek fleet you can have the remainder of the story be the Doctor and Davros sitting in a basement chinwagging. And that’s what’s so thoroughly brilliant about City of Death. It spends all its sci-fi time on one model shot and a creepy alien mask and then uses that as a frame for a story that’s really about Tom Baker and Julian Glover insulting each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue. Which is fantastic, because the BBC is fairly lousy at sci-fi action sequences, but remains as good as anyone in the world at putting a camera on Tom Baker and Julian Glover while they insult each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue.
What doing it as science fiction lets Adams do, however, is to use the basic fun of having Baker and Glover going at it to tell a much bigger and more interesting story than could be told in a more ostensibly “realist” genre. The real heart of this story is based on the idea of authenticity and fakery. Miles and Wood cite a bunch of quite good stuff on the difference between “worth” and “value,” but if you really want to get at the heart of what’s going on here you need to go for Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
For the most part in this blog when I opt to natter on about Marxism I have favored the French Situationists. Those for whom this blog is their primary window into the world of critical theory might therefore assume that the Situationists are the leading philosophical lights of Marxism. By and large I believe this to be true, but that position actually puts me outside the mainstream of humanities academia, which much more favors the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxists. (I think they backed the wrong horse appallingly here, and that Frankfurt School Marxism is mostly good if you want to feel smugly superior while smoking a lot of weed, which, to be fair, is actually what most Marxists in the humanities are going for) Benjamin is not actually of the Frankfurt school, having died before their foundation, but he’s tremendously formative to them. Perhaps more to the point for our purposes, however, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” his best known piece, formed the basis of John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing, which means that the ideas were thoroughly “in the air” in British culture.
The basic idea of Benjamin’s essay is that modern media have created a fundamental shift in art in which the aspects of art that gave it power, which Benjamin names the aura of the work of art. Aura describes those aspects of art that are unique to the original – the fetishistic and almost mystical power of the real, authentic object. Benjamin suggests that mechanical reproduction has brought an end to aura, and that this means that art is “completely useless for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”
It’s the notion of aura that is most immediately relevant to this piece. In effect what Scarlioni’s scheme has allowed him to do is to create seven versions of the Mona Lisa all of which are real – that is, all of which have aura. This (and not the spaceship stuff) is the real central sci-fi concept – the idea that it is possible to (quasi)mechanically reproduce aura itself.
The first and most obvious consequence of this is that the existing structures of art become transparently absurd. This manifests at various points of the story. In the way most relevant to the plot, of course, we have the basic absurdity of seven different collectors all of whom would be willing to buy the stolen Mona Lisa despite the fact that they could never show it to anyone, just for the sake of owning the painting. But the single most flagrant moment of mocking the absurdity of the art establishment is of course the John Cleese/Eleanor Bron cameo, which is a joke about the idea of imbuing a mundane object like a Police Box with aura simply by putting it into an art gallery and absent any actual artistry.
The real joke, of course, is that the TARDIS already possesses an aura of its own – one that Cleese and Bron’s characters are wholly incapable of grasping even if they don’t realize it. Having created a world in which even aura itself can be reproduced through Scaroth’s machinations Adams introduces the Doctor in all his mercurial glory. Here Miles and Wood nail how the Doctor is cast perfectly. If Scaroth is the one who can mechanize aura, the Doctor gets to play the role of Tom Keating.
Tom Keating is one of those people who properly understood that the only real way to become a folk hero is to become a master criminal first. Keating was an exceedingly talented art forger, which is not in and of itself a way to endear yourself to the public. But his real genius was not merely his ability to make stunningly good fakes but his ability to use them to unleash conceptual terrorism on the art world. Essentially, pissed off at his own failure to break into the art world on his own paintings he decided to just start taking the entire art world down a host of pegs.
This meant that not only did he make convincing forgeries of all manner of art and sell them to private collectors, he was a magnificent dick about it. He refused to provide a list of his fakes even after he was caught, he’d deliberately use one or two anachronistic techniques or modern materials in making an otherwise wholly believable painting, paint a layer of glycerine under the paint so that when the painting was eventually cleaned it would self-destruct, or, and this is obviously the key one for our purposes, write messages under the paint that would be revealed if the painting were x-rayed.
Keating’s paintings, befitting of his genius, now sell for thousands of pounds themselves, and there are forgers of his works now too. He is in this regard the postmodernist’s dream – a producer of artifice that becomes real in and of itself. And, of course, in City of Death the Doctor manages the exact same thing, slipping a copy of the Mona Lisa with “This is a Fake” written on it into the Louvre itself.
In this regard Adams inverts Benjamin’s rather dystopic view of the world, showing how even in an age of mechanical reproduction art is, in fact, completely useless for the purposes of fascism. The “moral” of the story as such is the point that the Mona Lisa is valuable not for its financial value but because of its beauty – because of the worth of looking at it. In this regard, of course, it situates itself in explicit opposition to the neoliberal ideal. Scarlioni serves as a high culture version of the right-wing war on art subsidies and their insistence that art should be able to pay for itself. Having six extra Mona Lisas created is in this regard a move of considerable genius – the ultimate Thatcherite expression of how art should work. (And note how Scarlioni bends the entirety of human history to the purpose of pulling off his scheme. Literally all of human history turns out to build up to a profit-making scheme. He really is an arch-Thatcherite.)
And the Doctor outdoes him not with some defense of art but with Tom Keating. Scarlioni figures out how to mechanically reproduce aura itself, so Baker one-ups him by just deflating aura and draining art of its ritual power. Crucially, however, the story’s attack on art does not stop there. City of Death is itself packed to the brim with stray bits of fakery. Some of these are small scale, and even potentially accidents: a French cafe showing English language news, the fact that Scaroth’s proper Jageroth head could never fit inside Julian Glover’s, or the utterly motiveless removal of the Julian Glover mask just to generate a cliffhanger. Others are more clever – the joke about whether the Doctor and Romana should “fly” down the Eiffel Tower that sets up an apparent moment in which they do in episode four, or the insertion of a fake “skip” in the tape in episode one. And, of course, there’s the big one: the fact that the plot resolution, far from being about the Doctor and his cleverness, is really when the brute force detective slugs Scaroth. The story itself, in the end, turns out not to be a Doctor Who story.
But of course, all of this dances around the real beauty and truth of it. The ultimate example of fakery in any given Doctor Who story is, of course, the Doctor himself.Whether it be his propensity for impersonation or simply bamboozling his way into the halls of power, the Doctor has always been the charismatic faker. His Doctorate is, by all Earth standards, non-existent. He makes almost certainly fabricated claims about having met historical figures. Even his very body turns out to be a forgery of the human form, and he continually reveals, through odd ticks or turns of phrase, his lack of authenticity. From day one when he turned out to be a fake grandfather in a fake police box living in a junk yard and sending Susan to school under a fake identity, the Doctor has been a forgery.
All of this, of course, would be mere cleverness were it not built on the foundation of a fantastic piece of character-based comedy. The cleverness and trickery is there, yes, but that’s not why the story was so popular. Nor, notably, was the ITV strike that left it as the only television in town. Sure, it helped and boosted the ratings, but notably the fourth part went out after the strike was over and ITV had resumed normal programming, and that was the episode that hit Doctor Who’s all-time ratings high. No, the reason this was so watched and so beloved is simple: it’s hilariously fun.
Because at the end of the day, that’s the heart and soul of this story. All of the great little lines, from Scaroth, from the Countess, from Romana, and, of course, from the Doctor himself. It is raucously, brilliantly funny, and no surprise given that it’s written by one of the best comic writers of the 20th century in any country.
And notably, this is also the real political content of the story. This is why it serves as a rejoinder to Benjamin’s idea that art, once mechanical reproduction robs aura of its power, becomes a tool of fascism. Because in the face of a villain who has bent the entire teleology of human progress to capitalist production the Doctor and the series itself, through glorious and unrepentant fakery, remind us of the single most crucial and effective refutation of Thatcher and the neoliberal program that there is. This story isn’t just great, it’s another one of the definitive shifts and developments in Doctor Who’s basic philosophy.
And this is something that has shown itself more and more clearly as time has gone on. Watching it in 2011, one of the most striking things is how much more like the new series it is than anything else around it. Even today one of the most straightforward paths to successful Doctor Who is to be like City of Death. Even on a level of basic formula, this is the first story in which nearly everything the Doctor says or does is a witticism. It’s the first time a writer has really gotten the Doctor to work so that he can simultaneously constantly clown about and constantly be seriously working on saving the world. The Doctor chalks his relaxed attitude up to being on holiday, but this is a fake as well. The Doctor’s always on holiday. That’s the point of him. That is, in fact, the heart and soul of the series political radicalness.
(And unsurprisingly it’s Gareth Roberts, whose admiration for this story and this era of Doctor Who outstrips almost anyone else’s, who can nail this story’s style the best. The Lodger and Closing Time are almost effortless executions of the City of Death formula. And how perfect that the villain of The Lodger turns out to be, indirectly, the Silence – another race who bent humanity to their own purposes. Even their line in The Day of the Moon about having been there for fire and the wheel echoes Scaroth’s claiming of credit for those exact two inventions.)
It is not, I think, a coincidence that the Thatcher era coincided with such an explosion of art and culture that I adore – that so many great writers and musicians established themselves during it. The reason for this is simple: this countercultural artistic production is the most fundamental weapon in existence against the right. We alluded to this back in the Mary Whitehouse entry, but here we can codify it fully.
Scarlioni can print money, wage war, and divert the entire course of history to his purposes. So let him. Let him have the institutions of power, the control over the artistic world, let him have everything. For all of that, the Doctor, in all his fake and mercurial glory, still wins for one simple reason. He’s more fun. Thatcher’s subsuming of postmodernism is, in this regard, ultimately and necessarily incomplete. She can take control of much of it, yes – allow the fluid nature of signifiers and the subjectivity of memory and history to serve her purposes. But there is one aspect of the postmodern that can never, ever be bent into the service of oppression. And over time, it is this aspect of it that will always win out. This is the true inevitable force of history, and the one the Doctor embraced when he rejected the Time Lords’ hollow and vacant joke of historical inevitability to run off on perpetual holiday. It is the content of every one of his victories and the moral force behind every moment of rage he shows.
And it is the one thing that Thatcher, fatally, lacks. At the end of the day, she’s just no fun.