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Jack Graham

Jack Graham wrote about Doctor Who and Marxism, often at the same time. These days he co-hosts the I Don't Speak German podcast with Daniel Harper.Support Jack on Patreon.

7 Comments

  1. WGPJosh
    May 21, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    This is a really excellent rebuke that brings up a lot of important, difficult to ignore points: Thanks for getting this out there.

    I have to wonder if much of this isn't due to Robert Holmes himself. He was never the most careful of writers: Look at the cruel feminist-bashing undertones in "The Time Warrior", his admirable-yet-misguided-and-ultimately-failed attempt to rehabilitate "Pyramids of Mars" and, well, "The Power of Kroll". Let us not forget he's also the one who penned the irredeemable racist and sexist nightmare that was "Talons of Weng-Chiang" and it was his tenure as script editor that let "The Seeds of Doom" through and brought down the wrath of Mary Whitehouse and her Thatcherite allies.

    I'm not saying Bob Holmes was a bigot, far from it. What I am saying though is that he was occasionally a rather careless and irresponsible writer and even more so as a script editor. He was too bitter and eager to troll everyone in "Time Warrior" to realise how profoundly stupid and self-destructive it was to laugh at Sarah Jane's feminism and too chuffed about doing a Sherlock Holmes meets Fu Manchu pastiche to realise what a god-awfully terrible idea that was from the start. I'm not sure he was ever fully aware of the unsavoury implications some of his words and actions occasionally bore and, given that, what you've identified in "The Two Doctors" makes perfect sense to me.

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  2. Lucy McGough
    May 21, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    I agree with you rather than with Dr Sandifer.

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  3. Jack Graham
    May 21, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    Lucy – thanks! 🙂

    Josh – This is a tad tricky because, while I'm glad you like what I wrote above, I have to differ with you on 'Time Warrior' and 'Power of Kroll'. I think 'Time Warrior' actually evinces a distinct sympathy for feminist ideas, even as it pokes fun at Sarah's youthful idealism and naivete. Yes, the depiction of a young feminist could have been much better… but I think the story goes to great pains to showcase (albeit in a watered-down form suitable for Saturday tea time) the sexism and misogyny of medieval society, and has no less than two strong female guest characters both of whom seem considerably smarter than the men. Lady Eleanor gets herself described as a "narrow hipped vixen" for her proactivity (a specifically sexist set of insults).

    Irongron and Linx chime in their attitude towards women, as with so much else. For Irongron, they're there "to do the lowly work" and for Linx they are a "secondary" part of the human reproductive system. In light of all this, it’s actually rather caustic to see Sarah angrily refusing to make the Doctor coffee, or mentioning that a modern theme park might well employ "buxom serving wenches".

    I don't see that Bob Holmes pokes fun at Sarah’s feminism per se. He gives her a genuinely great scene where she upbraids Irongron’s female drudges for submitting to male rule. She’s naive, certainly, telling the women that men “don’t own the world”… when, at this point in European history, they really did own pretty much everything… but her refusal to accept the viewpoint that “women will never be free while there are men in the world” is clearly championed. The irony is that the woman who says this is depicted as strong-willed, opinionated and clearly intellectually superior to all the men she serves. And what’s more, she understands (perhaps without realising that she understands) that the more profound division in society is not between men and women but between classes; this is obvious when she tells Sarah not to give the guards at the gate any stew. Sarah’s outraged outburst in response to her resigned servility – “What subservient poppycock! You’re still living in the Middle Ages!” – might make her look momentarily silly, but it also shows that she is aware of historical progress.

    I also think 'Power of Kroll', while far from perfect, is actually pretty good on the issue of native people, certainly when compared to something like 'Avatar' (I say why here: http://shabogangraffiti.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/going-native.html)

    I mostly agree with you about 'Pyramids' and 'Talons' though… but I'd be interested to know what you mean about Holmes' "attempt to rehabilitate" 'Pyramids'???

    I agree that Holmes could get so wrapped up in the aesthetic games he was playing that he missed some of the implications of the tropes he was playing with… but sometimes he really concentrated on his craft and here's the weird thing… when he did that, he often sounded like an instinctive radical. That's why I find it so jarring that the epithet so often used to describe Holmes by the usually-acute Dr Sandifer is "cynical". I don't buy that. I think he was, at bottom, an idealist and a romantic.

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  4. WGPJosh
    May 21, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    I actually don't dislike "Power of Kroll" either-It's honestly just that I'm just too used to pre-emptively defending my open admiration for the Graham Williams era. I agree it handles the issue of native peoples rather well, though I will hasten to add it is far from perfect.

    That's an interesting way to read "Time Warrior". I'm still a bit put off about how Doctor Who's attempt to deal with feminism in the early 1970s was to make its main character more sexist so they could give the feminist someone to complain about, and there I do agree with Phil Sandifer's critique of it. It does seem uncomfortably like Holmes is putting Sarah into bad situations just to make her look silly and naive, and when you do something like introduce a new feminist character explicitly to put feminism in a positive light, then have the character be silly and naive and needing to be guided by, of all people, a male authority figure, that does rather torpedo your intended message in my opinion.

    My comment about "Pyramids of Mars" was merely meant as an acknowledgment that Holmes didn't originally write that script and had actually initially shelved it. The original author kept re-submitting it and Holmes kept rejecting it and sending it back with notes. However, Season 13 wound up two serials short and something was desperately needed to fill the gaps and flesh out the season, hence "Pyramids" got a frantic, hurried eleventh hour rewrite in an attempt to make it somewhat workable and Holmes got full credit on the rewrite (the other serial to be tossed in at the last second was, naturally, "The Seeds of Doom", it being literally nothing more then a shelved Avengers script with the names changed).

    The problem with this is that Holmes didn't make it work. "Pyramids" should never have been commissioned in the first place and no matter what Holmes did seemed to make it any less racist, dreadfully unpleasant and cartoonishly morally reductive. Also, the show never would have been two serials down to begin with had Hinchliffe and Holmes delegated their time better: They very clearly focused 100% of their attention on at best one or two serials a year and let the rest of the season get away from them. Had they been more hands-on they wouldn't have needed to hurriedly commission "Pyramids" and "Seeds" and we might have been spared "The Android Invasion".

    That said, I agree completely with you that when Holmes focused his craft he was nigh without comparison. I also agree that when he got it all together he did seem like an admirably fiery radical. I think what's special about him, and what Phil Sandifer doesn't quite pick up on, is that while yes, Holmes had a somewhat cynical attitude to the world, that didn't mean he didn't also want to make it better. Holmes wasn't a nihilist, he was someone who was deeply upset about injustice and inequality and used his writing as a way to fight back against it and more often than not he was incredibly successful in doing so. I just don't think he was that hot a script editor and that he oftentimes was too disconnected from issues for his own good.

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  5. Jack Graham
    May 22, 2012 @ 5:40 am

    "My comment about "Pyramids of Mars" was merely meant as an acknowledgment that Holmes didn't originally write that script and had actually initially shelved it."

    Ah, I see. Sorry, I was being dim.

    "I'm still a bit put off about how Doctor Who's attempt to deal with feminism in the early 1970s was to make its main character more sexist so they could give the feminist someone to complain about"

    I don't really buy that. Did they really make him more sexist, or just more openly sexist?

    "It does seem uncomfortably like Holmes is putting Sarah into bad situations just to make her look silly and naive, and when you do something like introduce a new feminist character explicitly to put feminism in a positive light, then have the character be silly and naive and needing to be guided by, of all people, a male authority figure, that does rather torpedo your intended message in my opinion."

    Yeah, there's something in that. All the same, the story is full of male authority figures who range from the pathetic to the thick to the openly and nastily misogynist… which compromises any attempt to see the story as advocating the restoration of male order in the face of feminist silliness.

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  6. WGPJosh
    May 22, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    "I don't really buy that. Did they really make him more sexist, or just more openly sexist?"

    I can accept that. Jon Pertwee's Doctor was never terribly much of a feminist-friendly figure (his partnership with Liz possibly excepted). Even the Glam and Drag readings of his character, clever and valid as they may be, have a whiff of the reparative about them. That's the problem with Doctor Who in the 1970s in my opinion: So much of what's good about it in this era is in how it makes up for the fact the premise has gone somewhat off the rails.

    "All the same, the story is full of male authority figures who range from the pathetic to the thick to the openly and nastily misogynist… which compromises any attempt to see the story as advocating the restoration of male order in the face of feminist silliness."

    This is true, and while I'm not arguing it advocates the restoration of patriarchy, I do find it unnerving that it portrays feminism in anything less then an unambiguously positive light by virtue of how Sarah is written. This being one of the traditional, once-an-era "Robert Holmes Trolls Everybody" serials, it's focused on skewering everything and everyone in the story comes across as a bit clownish-as you pointed out. The fact that Sarah isn't spared from this bothers me more than a little. It's even weird coming off of "Frontier in Space", where Jo gets in a few barbs at the Draconians for not yet having Women's Lib and the scene explicitly granting her the moral high ground. It still seems uncannily to me like the show is going backwards on feminism from even where it had been a few months ago.

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  7. Elizabeth Sandifer
    June 12, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    Just got around to noticing this.

    The thing that gives me pause is whether the smattering of random traits of typically demeaned cultures isn't still part of the point. That all of the markers of alienness Shockeye gets are basically traits we associate with cultures that 1980s Britain was less than kind to seems to me the point – that if the Sontarans were Irish instead of potato-faced they'd be absolutely horrible. Or, to put it another way, it's only the decision to play Shockeye as human-with-ethnic-traits that gets us to notice how horrible everyone is treating him in the first place. (This even comes close to explaining that ghastly "mongrel tongue" line – an instance in which Jamie's Scottishness is treated the same as Shockeye's purely so that the audience can bristle.) This is, to my mind, what's interesting about The Two Doctors – if the Androgums had just been lizard people then nobody would have noticed the script's screwed up ethics. The script goes out of its way to foreground that and make it a source of discomfort.

    Regarding the larger issue of redemptive readings, my views on them are borne out of an increasing frustration with the limitations of feminist, post-colonial, and other subaltern-focused schools of criticism. All of which were astonishingly revelatory when they rose to prominence and were absolutely necessary, but which have, I think, left literary criticism in an unfortunate state in which every text is suspect, hegemonic, and a source of oppression. Which, yes, that's certainly true in that the dominant culture is largely hegemonic and oppressive and thus its literature and art is all tainted by that. And again, that was a terribly useful piece of insight and I don't view my preference for redemptive readings as existing in opposition to that fact.

    But a result of it seems to me that literary criticism is left with very little to do except to just be dour about everything or to engage in the style of reading that Eve Sedgwick mercilessly skewered as finding every text "kinda subversive and kinda hegemonic." And I think from a political standpoint that leaves us very vulnerable. Writ small, look at how no matter how solid the evidence of The Celestial Toymaker's racism is my post on it remains the single biggest lightning rod for criticism I've posted and people routinely accuse me of looking for things to be offended about. Writ large, look at how humanities academia finds itself pilloried on a political level and an easy target for budget cuts. Or at how "feminism" has become a dirty word in many contexts due to a stereotype of it as a viewpoint based entirely on complaining.

    Simply put, what I like about redemptive readings as a concept is that they allow literary criticism the opportunity to be affirmative and proactive instead of purely denunciative. I see them very much as a follow-up to the gains won by feminism, post-colonialism, race studies, Marxism, et al. Their purpose is to, wherever possible, detourn existing texts into subversive and politically viable pieces. Instead of being something to be uncomfortable about and critical of, The Two Doctors, read redemptively, becomes a weapon to attack appalling notions of the other. I think, on a fundamental level, that's more useful.

    It helps, of course, that there are things that simply cannot sustain redemptive readings. Thus redemptive readings do not become blithe utopianism simply because A) any good redemptive reading is going to acknowledge its counterarguments and B) there's always a large pool of crap that redemptively read texts can be read against. So to me, redemptive readings are not about abandoning skepticism, they're about taking weapons to make a difference where you can find them, by force if need be.

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