Blobs in a Snowstorm
With extra material by Charles Daniels (so there’ll be at least one bit of it worth reading).
What is Doctor Who but a “carnival of monsters”? A peepshow for kids that want to look in on lots of other worlds full of funny little creatures doing funny little tricks, like arguing and fighting and being chased and eaten by monsters? In fact, that’s TV generally. Well, actually, it’s fiction generally. But Doctor Who is what’s being examined here. A cheap ‘n’ cheerful carny entertainment, proffered by el cheapo entertainers. The purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political……
Except that entertainment is inherently political, as is fun, as is the imagination, as is the love of monsters. Monsters, as China Miéville has put it, are “good at meaning” things. He says that we’re a teratoculture, that we make monsters as part of our inherent humanness. They’re all over the caves that prehistoric man painted. We’re the animal that is scared of our predators… but also wonders how cool it would be if four of our different predators all donated body parts to some chimera creature that exists only in our heads. And we still love monsters, even in our world of technology and capitalism. We go to them for amusement, to fend off the boredom. And they mean things for us at the same time.
Inter-Minor (a world whose name suggests interiority and petty little concerns) is run by grey-faced, bureaucratic, xenophobic, snobbish, isolationist killjoys. It reminds me of what James Connolly said about the consequences of dividing Ireland, that it would be a “carnival of reaction”. And right he was too. The Inter-Minoran rulers could be the Catholic Church in the South, cracking down on fun (though they’re a bit too disapproving of colourful kitsch and bling to convince as Catholics) or the Protestant ruling minority in the North, holding down the Catholics. Bit of a stretch? Yeah, okay, probably. But either way, they hate the Scope because it might amuse the Functionaries, the exploited underclass who are shot down for stopping work and protesting. And the Functionaries do look interested! The “official species” won’t let them look, however. They fear the contamination brought by the multi-coloured, sequin-plastered fakers who want to bring colour and fun to their world. They don’t want the functionaries getting ideas. Like the British imperialists on the SS Bernice who generalise about “Johnny Chinaman” and the laziness of their “Madrassi” (which is a racist slur, in case you didn’t know), the Inter-Minorans don’t think their beasts of burden can be trusted to pause working without also losing their discipline and becoming dangerous.
Is this a protectionist state tyranny that fears the freedoms brought by the free market – personified by the entrepreneurial Vorg? Maybe, but this story also critiques British imperialist racism… and Vorg is hardly an ethical paragon. His business is the cruel and utterly callous exploitation of the “monsters” that find their way into his little malfunctioning techno-zoo. A machine that separates people into their little boxes and keeps them there, running round in circles, doing the same things over and over, stuck in time, unalive and unaware of it. If capitalism is better than the state bureaucracy of the Inter-Minorans, it is still depicted as a system of exploitation and alienation… which the Doctor shuts down too.
Also, when Kalik outlines his plan for allowing some drashigs to escape (thus causing havoc, leading to a war, increased xenophobia, regime change, national unity and docile functionaries) it sounds like what some would now call ‘shock therapy’. Use the terrorist attack, hurricane or invasion as a cover under which to restructure society along reactionary neoliberal lines while everyone is scared and reeling. No doubt Kalik would have his own version of a PATRIOT Act and lots of Lurmanophobic terrorist scares, probably followed by a savage spending review. If Kalik is a protectionist and a statist, he’s behaving like a neoliberal. Or a neoconservative. They’re pretty much different facets of the same thing. Of course, one of the things one learns from reading people like Naomi Klein and Chomsky is that the ideologues of the weak state and free trade are the very people who advocate protectionism and ultra-statism in practice. The free market couldn’t afford to run itself and still make profits without massive public investment and subsidies. But I digress…
Meanwhile, the metaphor of the Scope for all fiction continues. It’s a machine that moves characters around from box to box. The people inside are also characters controlled by a lazy author (like the soldiers in the War Games or the characters in the Land of Fiction)… or perhaps even existential beings observed but unhelped by amused and detached gods. As flies to wanton boys to the gods are we, etc… Vorg twiddles the dials to make the monsters in his technological flea circus jump. He’s a script writer adjusting the characters. He twists the “aggrometer” (!) and the people on the screen start fighting… he twists it back and they wander off for tea. And Jo gets to comment further on the mechanics of Who story construction: “isn’t it time for the monster bit about now?”
If TV is a system of levels, one within the other, dimension within dimension, play within play… then Doctor Who, with its integral system of big spaces inside little boxes is the same TV dimensional system ramped up and amplified, something that this story analyses and cheekily disrupts. The TARDIS inside the boat inside the Scope inside Inter-Minor inside your TV inside your world… and the Doctor walks around inside your TV breaking down the barriers between the compartments, screwing up the circuitry… the different genres (the historical and the monster story) break into each other, just as the entire system of worlds within the Scope eventually breaks out into Inter-Minor, leaving you wondering – at that back of your mind, especially if you’re a kid – if the Drashigs are also going to break out of the TV into your living room… and devour you before they rampage through Britain devouring all the xenophobes and bureaucrats and little Englanders and carny show people and bored workers…
On top of all this we have a satire of bad sci-fi that is ten times better and cleverer (and considerably less smug) than anything Douglas Adams would later go on to do, either in Who or elsewhere. In fact, it also simultaneously satirises anti-sci-fi snobbery. Kalik mutters at the ridiculousness of the Lurman names. They have a weapon called “the Eradicator” and a leader called “Zarb” and they think the Lurmans are daft!
Speaking of daft… why is the Skarasan in ‘Terror of the Zygons’ widely held to ruin (or nearly ruin) the story, while the plesiosaur and drashigs in ‘Carnival’ are not? The answer is as interesting as it is simple: ‘Zygons’ attempts some kind of naturalism in its aesthetics; ‘Carnival’ does not. Proof that the effectiveness of an effect is as much to do with its context as its intrinsic realism (or lack thereof).
I could go on. At length. But I’ll have mercy on you and hand over to Who forum legend, party animal and eccentric genius Charles Daniels. Here is his take on ‘Carnival’. I don’t personally agree with absolutely every word of it (and it goes without saying that my quoting him here doesn’t mean he agrees with me about everything… or even anything), but it’s brilliant – no doubt about that. Read it:
What’s the FIRST THING WE SEE in Carnival of Monsters? The Doctor arrives on the planet in outrageous attire, with his lovely girl companion complaining about how disappointed she is with his choices of destination.
by the loud, tasteless, multi-coloured coat that he was forced to wear.
I’m sure the eeriely mirroring situation is just a freaky coincidence. After all, this is
a Pertwee story, and subtext wasn’t invented until 1982 when they aired ‘Kinda’.
Anyway, I don’t know how I confused them with the Doctor and Jo Grant, they didn’t arrive in the TARDIS. They arrived on an assembly line where they were treated like mass produced objects. Again, no possible hint of irony could possibly have been in Robert Holmes’ mind when he wrote that. He’s not exactly a writer known for using comedy double acts to promote subversive material, now is he? I’m sure he didn’t mean to say that Doctor Who had become rather formulaic in recent years.
Right, so everything I said before, let’s just take that as unintentional co-incidence.
You write about two people travelling through space to exotic worlds together, there’s bound to be some overlap with a completely different set of characters in the same universe who just happen to travel through space together.
So what about Vorg and Shirna? Well Shirna is the assistant. And Vorg is a somewhat shady seeming, but apparently nice enough, alien with a small, innocuous-looking, machine that can manipulate time and is bigger on the inside than the out. (It’s the size of a tall trash can, and can contain entire oceanliners and desert planets.)
Oh and while Vorg tries to calm his assistant when the machine starts to go bonkers, he keeps insisting that everything is alright and he knows how to operate the machine, when he blatantly doesn’t.
So yeah, it just gets more and more dissimilar a parallel as I continue. Doesn’t it?
Okay, enough with the sarcasm.
Vorg and Shirna are Doctor Who.
They are a statement about Doctor Who WITHIN a serial of Doctor Who.
And what are Vorg and Shirna (aka Doctor Who) trying to do? Well they arrive, reckon their audience is stupid, and then try to con as much cash out of them as possible.
“Step up step up for the monster show! Step up for the monster show! You schmucks!”
Not exactly the BEST thing you can say about Monster Show fan-…oops, I mean Doctor Who fandom, is it?
No nostalgia. Just plain old “Get the mark’s money/viewing figures/AI numbers.”
Nearby two aliens note that their scientists are puzzled as to why virtually every alien species looks more or less roughly humanoid. Again — SERIOUS. TAKING. THE. PISS.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Jo are running around in corridors, getting captured, escaping, getting terrified by monsters, running around in corridors, getting captured, escaping, getting terrified by monsters, running around in corridors which Jo insists they’ve been in before but the Doctor assures her that the corridors all look identical and it’s just her imagination, and then they discover that it actually IS the same corridor again and again. And they are surrounded by people who repeat the same actions AGAIN AND AGAIN!
The Doctor’s life comes into peril on multiple occasions — he’s almost microwaved to death due to some rather harsh immigration laws, he’s almost eaten, etc etc. But for once it’s not the Doctor being generally clever, insanely lucky, or his foe’s being generally bad at killing people that saves him.
This time around, at every turn the Doctor has saviours who step in on his behalf.
Who are these saviours? A bunch of bickering bureaucrats with unbelievably awful hair. Each of the bureaucrats is driven by a need to outdo the other in a petty game of political backstabbing. Each time the Doctor is threatened, petty bureaucrats advance their own agendas to save Doctor Who… I mean, the Doctor. I mean…well, I don’t want to suggest that Robert Holmes was suggesting something about the way decisions were made at the BBC in the 1970s. It’s just an eerie coincidence, just like the Vorg/Shirna parallel we debunked earlier.
In brief, the entire history of Doctor Who is deconstructed and taken the piss out of.
And that’s not too terribly hard; We’ve seen horrifically unsubtle stabs at it, say with the LITERAL cliffhanger in ‘Dragonfire’. But what makes Robert Holmes impressive is that he did it under the nose of fans who have seen the episodes multiple times. The difference is that the same fans who are happy to pick apart the socio-political importance of ‘Battlefield’, tend to dismiss Pertwee as a load of old pro-establishment rubbish. Which doesn’t pan out if you actually sit down and watch Pertwee stories.
Things like ‘The Green Death’, which was entirely blatant and in-your-face, were far more relevant and necessary than say — an impassioned speech against nuclear war, which by 1989 wasn’t too terribly controversial an idea. You’ve got the Peladon stories, the ‘Frontier In Space’, the Silurians — all of which are trying to address relevant points with varying degrees of success. But ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is the Pertwee story that looks inward, and gets away with it.
Now, I should finish on that last line but that would mean I’d have to drop another point entirely, but it’s one thing that I mustn’t over look –
The Pertwee stories also are a great source to see the fundamental shift of social expectation.
Dystopia, oppression, and state violence were THE EXPECTED NORM of the 1970s. In a modern production all social ills are cured or taking their first steps to being healed within 45 minutes of the opening credits. For instance, even in the first Ood story we see the human characters shift their perceptions radically at the end of the story when they record the Ood deaths. And that sets the stage for the ABSOLUTELY UNAVOIDABLE sequel in which the Ood are freed.
In the ‘Carnival of Monsters’? The powers that be of Inter-Minor push the working class to the brink of insanity and then shoot them dead in cold blood.
Not only is this NOT all fixed with a happy warm bow at the end of the story — it’s NEVER EVEN ADDRESSED.
The Doctor doesn’t get involved. He doesn’t free the enslaved masses. He doesn’t demand retribution for the “forcibly retired” members of the workforce. He just pisses off.
But he doesn’t piss off before he laughs, chuckles, and essentially endorses Vorg on his quest to con innocent people out of as much credit bars as possible.
I’ll only say one thing in response to the above. The Ood aren’t “freed”, they free themselves. And in the last episode of ‘Carnival’, Pletrac can’t get the transport to take Vorg and Shirna away because “the functionaries are refusing to work double shifts”. When they protest on their own they can be shot down. When they unite, all the ruling class can do is grumble and look scared. That’s why I like the fact that the Doctor doesn’t free them. They don’t need him to. They can do it themselves. We need a bit of that sort of thing ourselves.