|Close your eyes, give me your hand, darling.|
It’s September 4, 1976. ABBA are at number one with “Dancing Queen,” a fact that says more about the zeitgeist than anything else I can hope to say. But for the sake of completism, it stays at #1 for all four weeks of this story. Wings, Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees, and Elton John and Kiki Dee also chart. And The Ramones release their first album, which is the sort of thing that means we can start talking about punk when the mood strikes us.
Since The Seeds of Doom, the most obvious thing to say happened is that Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned as Prime Minister on March 16th, and the Labour Party voted James Callaghan in as his successor. This is, as it happens, not going to end well. In other news, Apple Computer was formed, the UK actually wins Eurovision, the Soweto riots begin in South Africa, Viking 1 lands on Mars, the Son of Sam killings begin, and Big Ben breaks down for nine months.
While during this story, Mao Zedong dies, which is a kind of definitive end to an era. A fatal air collision occurs in what is now Croatia between a British Airways flight and a Yugoslavian flight, killing 176. The 100 Club Punk Special, an iconic and formative punk concert that put The Damned, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and Siouxie and the Banshees all on one two-day long bill, takes place, which means we can really talk about punk just as soon as Doctor Who bothers to make that option relevant. In a less fortunate rejoinder, U2 forms.
While on television, we have the start of a new season of Doctor Who, and a return to the wide world of human history. Prior to my power/Internet exploding (and off and on since then), I found myself enjoying the great time-wasting distraction of the early 21st century, arguing with people on the Internet. Or, more specifically, I found myself arguing with people on the Internet over whether or not Doctor Who is best considered a science fiction show or a fantasy show. Mostly I find the distinction not particularly worth making, but there’s a flavor of the “Doctor Who is sci-fi” argument that I find sufficiently loathsome that I can be reliably dragged in on it, and that’s that Doctor Who in some way supports a rationalist/skeptical view of the universe.
This is an unfortunate disease within science fiction fandom in general. I mean, I’m obviously a fairly pro-science kind of guy, and I salute the people who devote time to taking down “alternative medicine” cranks that, in a real and literal sense, kill people. But there’s a second flavor of skepticism that amounts to an effort to eradicate non-scientific thinking in favor of the belief that science is the only meaningful form of truth. This is the sort of skepticism favored by evangelical atheists, anti-postmodernists of the Alan Sokal school, and other groups of people I am less than fond of (though, to be fair, most adherents to either perspective can be fairly easily brought around by encountering theists who are not theocratic lunatics or postmodernists who can speak reality when called upon to do so – most of the hardline skepticism crowd, much as they irritate me, are good folks). In fact, in extreme cases – people who take Alan Sokal seriously, most noticeably, I kind of loathe them with every fiber of my being.
So needless to say, I am disinclined to see Doctor Who dragged in as a supporter of that flavor of skepticism. Actually, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll use a term inadvertently coined during a seminar I took once, in which this strong ideological form of science (as opposed to the practice of science as a method of figuring stuff out) was being called “big-S Science,” which in turn got misheard as Big-Ass Science, a term I have kind of loved ever since, because apparently I am five. Thankfully, there are stories like The Masque of Mandragora that let me go on at considerable length to show why this is total nonsense. Doubly fun is that I’m sure that some of the people who insist that Doctor Who supports Big-Ass Science view Masque of Mandragora as one of the keystone episodes in their case. And they’re so deliciously wrong.
To be fair, they’re at least wrong in a more or less understandable way. A careless reading of the story will reveal the Doctor talking about how the Renaissance is the midpoint “between the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason,” one of the two main human villains is an astrologer, and characters can be more or less defined by whether they are scientific or superstitious. And because the Doctor’s end advice is basically “keep developing science.” The fact of the matter is, this looks like more of a defense of Big-Ass Science than almost any other Doctor Who story. Which is why I’ll make my stand here for why, whatever Doctor Who is, it’s not a defense of Big-Ass Science. Because one of the basic rules of criticism like this is that you take on your opponents’ best argument, not their worst. I can point out how The Mind Robber gestures at mystical thinking til the cows come home, but that’s easy. No, if there’s a story to have the fight with Big-Ass Science on, it’s the one that, at least initially, looks like it’s on their side. But it’s not. You can tell, for one very simple reason: Louis Marks isn’t an idiot.
One of the most important things that never really comes up when talking about the Tom Baker era is that Baker is the last Doctor to have stories written by any writers who also wrote for the Hartnell era. Marks is one of three Hartnel-era writers to write for Baker, having gotten his start with Planet of Giants. In one sense, this is actually the story’s biggest weakness. Marks’s sense of pacing and timing – which we should note was wonky even in 1964, when his story required Verity Lambert to hastily edit the last two episodes into one after the episodes were shot – is strangely out of step with almost everyone else writing Doctor Who in the 1970s. Even Terry Nation, with his skill at keeping a story moving (albeit without always going anywhere), does not end up with scripts as stilted as Marks does.
But underneath the pacing we have a writer who cut his teeth on Doctor Who under David Whitaker, and who is still in a fundamental sense writing for that show with a new cast, as opposed to writing for Doctor Who as it exists at this stage. This is not entirely a bad thing. Yes, Marks’s scripts are a bit pokey and don’t’ quite hold together into the climaxes, but Planet of Evil and now this are both extremely intelligent scripts with lots of ideas in them. In fact, that’s the basic difference between Hartnell scripts and Baker scripts. Both are intelligent scripts that play with the world of ideas, but in the Hartnell era, Doctor Who was simply a vehicle to explore a lengthy series of interesting ideas. By the Baker era, it’s more than just that. And unlike the exploding spectacles of Baker and Martin-style idea scripts, Marks’s ideas are as intelligent and complex as you’d expect from someone with a PhD in Renaissance studies.
Which is the other thing about Marks and this script – there’s just no way that Marks is actually so ignorant of the Renaissance as to suggest that it is meaningfully a transition between superstition and reason. I mean, yes, obviously the Renaissance was a major step forward in numerous intellectual and artistic fields. But the idea that it was based on throwing off the superstition of the past is… farcical. I mean, this should be evident to anyone who even thinks about the Renaissance. It’s most defined by the return of classical Greco-Roman thought into mainstream European culture.
The thing is, the Greeks and Romans, brilliant as they were, were not rationalists in the Big-Ass Science sense of that word. There is no sane way to argue that Aristotle or Plato were empiricists. Nor is there a good way to argue that the political institution of the Catholic Church, which dominated the Renaissance, was pro-Big-Ass Science. (Indeed, it’s essentially impossible to argue that any religious institution is pro-Big-Ass Science, given that the eradication of spirituality is overtly one of Big-Ass Science’s goals) To say that the Renaissance, which was about adding one set of non-rationalist thinkers into the worldview of another, is the dawn of Big-Ass Science is sloppy in a way that no actual expert in the Renaissance would be.
And all of this is compounded by the fact that, other than some speechmaking about rationality and how the Mandragora Helix is just advanced science, everything about this story looks like magic. Much like The Daemons, we’re in that territory where the scientific explanation ends up being nothing more than a wordy confirmation of the underlying mysticism. The Mandragora Helix works according to a logic of astrology – it moves in to influence the Earth, then moves out again. Its goals are not scientific but alchemical – it wants to eat human nature, not some definable energy source. And in the end, the Cult of Demnos and the astrologers are basically right.
But perhaps most problematically for the Big-Ass Science crowd is the fact that the supposed scientific explanation is not so much nonsense as absent. This begins to relate back to what we were talking about last time. Quite frankly, a show that is aspiring to support for Big-Ass Science needs to be proper SF – invested in the material realities of science and technology. That is to say, it needs to not just hand wave about “a case of energy squared,” but to have some actual relation, if not to a real scientific concept, at least to some sort of coherent worldview. (For all of its faults, Star Trek does relatively well with this. None of its technology makes a damn bit of sense, but they do an excellent job of having a coherent set of technobabble explanations that at least look like they come from a defined scientific worldview, even if that worldview is inexplicable to the audience.)
The show, in other words, betrays Big-Ass Science on a very fundamental level here. It flagrantly fails to actually support science or rationalism. Sure, it opposes evil astrologers, which is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, but in the end, Hieronymous isn’t evil because he’s an astrologer but because he’s an authoritarian dick of the sort who are always evil in Doctor Who. Indeed, Hieronymous continues to have power in the narrative – largely because, as Miles and Wood point out, the basic structure of the medium is on his side. When he predicts the Count’s death, he audience knows then that the Count is toast. This gives Hieronymous an irreducible power within the narrative that no amount of rhetoric about rationalism and science can defuse.
But this raises the very sensible question of why Marks makes such a big deal of the rationalism/superstition debate. But we’ve already answered this question. Marks is writing a script that in many ways resembles the Hartnell era. And the point of historicals in the Hartnell era was always educational. The lines about rationalism and superstition aren’t declarations of the theme of the story. They’re little educational nuggets – the Renaissance dumbed down for eight-year-olds. And it’s not, taken that way, a terrible explanation – the Renaissance was a major moment in the history of science, and its non-rational ideas did give birth to the scientific method in the end. Yes, it’s overly simplified, but a lengthy explanation about the evolution of science as a methodology and the reconstituting of classical ideas into a Christian society isn’t really eight-year-old material. But, crucially, since we are not eight years old, we should not be staring at the kiddie history lesson for our sense of what is going on in the story.
But if the story isn’t a rousing defense of Big-Ass Science, what is it? It’s not, and this should go without saying, but since I’m doing a revision gloss right now to clear up some arguments that I got in the initial wave of comments, I’ll say it anyway, a defense of Big-Ass Mysticism. Rather, it’s a proper dialectical moment. Magic and science are presented as opposites, and the Doctor crafts a position that is not a midpoint between them but a synthesis of them.
Let’s look at the end. We are told that the Doctor has not permanently stopped the Mandragora Helix, but has rather delayed it by 500 years so that it will arrive more or less in the present day of the viewer. In other words, the story is overtly eschatological, suggesting that humanity is again at a point where it risks losing its very identity and drive. But, equally significantly, it suggests that humanity is at the point of some sort of major intellectual/cultural leap forward that is akin to the Renaissance.
So we’re left with, in essence, another variation of the stock Hinchcliffe scenario of an ancient threat that is thought to be defeated coming back for one last round. Except we’re coming at it from the other end – we’re seeing its presumptive defeat and getting told it has one last round, as opposed to seeing its last stand. But, crucially, there’s a big piece of symmetry in place here. The idea of the past returning is, after all, the heart of the Renaissance itself.
In other words, the structure of this story is almost fractal. At multiple points and levels, we are faced with the idea of the past returning and affecting the present. Which makes sense – the idea of the past returning is fundamentally recursive. But more importantly, even though this is not a story that features the Time Lords in any active capacity, it gives us a sense of another step in the evolution of what the Time Lords are.
The last definitive statement we came to was that the Time Lords were protectors of history in a Marxist/dialectical sense – that they safeguarded the tendency of history to approach certain ends. But now, under Marks (and it’s not, I trust, an excessive spoiler to say that this will be picked up on heavily in two entries time) we see an acknowledgment of the logical consequence of that. If history tends towards certain ends, this suggests that there are also common historical events – that the past does, in fact, recur. In which case we are pushed towards an interesting situation in which the Time Lords would simultaneously have to be seen as ushering the universe towards some sense of destiny and as an atavistic force that continually pulls the arc of history backwards towards recapitulating past events. (To the inevitable person who is going to comment on this: yes, I’m doing the Pop Between Realities post you hope I’m doing after reading that sentence.)
And furthermore, we should look at the particulars of how he defeats Mandragora. Here I must give particular thanks to one of the commenters on this entry (yes, this is one of the paragraphs added in the quickie expansion) – the wise and august Dr. Happypants – who observed that the Doctor’s defeat of Mandragora is based on clever use of schoolboy science. This gives a particular sense of his synthesis – he commits to the pragmatic and the clever. He does not endorse either ideological position, instead committing himself to the material act of advancing history through its messy reality instead of through the sort of grand manipulative design of Mandragora. (Who is a representative of Big-Ass Mysticism)
The Masque of Mandragora, of course, does not completely go through the door that it opens. It doesn’t connect the materialism of history with its circularity. But it does introduce some key concepts. First, it helps us start to understand another way in which the show can be materialist without committing to Big-Ass Science. If we accept this atavistic tendency of history then we find a new sort of materialism that can be captured – accurate depictions of recurring social forces. And so Marks is, here, paying attention to material social progress by paying attention to the nature of the Renaissance, at least once you get past the didacticism for children.
The result is, as with Planet of Evil, not one of the classics of the era. But it’s also not a massively flawed number. But this is in some ways helpful, at least for critical purposes. We can see what the Hinchcliffe era is doing more clearly in a script like this than in one of the massive classics like Brain of Morbius or Genesis of the Daleks. Much like Pyramids of Mars, this is not a great story. But in all likelihood, the next one to walk through this door will be.
Also like Pyramids of Mars, however, there’s one annoying bit of business to get through first.
Note: I gave this article a quick gloss early Friday afternoon based on some initial reader comments. No substantive changes to the argument were made, though some claims were fleshed out a bit.