I finished reading Stephen Baxter’s Doctor Who novel The Wheel of Ice today. The novel had its moments. There is one description of an attack upon Zoe by a group of ‘blue dolls’ – fabricated avatars of an ancient artificial intelligence – that is rather well done. The blank black eyes and needle teeth are fairly routine but there is something oddly disturbing about the descriptions of their paddle-like hands.
On the whole, however, I found the book rather uninspired. The phrase I just used – “ancient artificial intelligence” – says a lot about the book’s use of somewhat familiar tropes. There seems to have been an attempt to evoke the ‘base under siege’ / ‘humans in the future’ formula so often said to be typical of the Troughton era… but with the ‘siege’ coming from within the colony. However, Baxter is perhaps a little too interested in the technical details of the solar system. We get an awful lot of scenes where the action stops dead so the characters can explain neutrinos to each other, or describe the chemical composition of Titan’s atmosphere. There’s also a lot of stuff about how a space colony would actuallly work in technical terms, but it’s not terribly relevant to the story. So, once again, the action tends to pause so that people can talk about waste recycling.
There is an attempt to adapt the characters of Zoe and Jamie to new situations that also causes a slowing-down of the action. It would be okay if they had genuinely interesting things to do… but Zoe gets to tell bedtime stories about the Karkus to a toddler and Jamie falls in with a bunch of naff ‘rebellious’ young people who say excrutiating things like “Cowabunga, granddad!”. I shit you not.
There’s a rather likeable Scottish robot called Mac who gets developed only so far before being sidelined and then brought back for a rather twee ’emotional’ bit at the end. It’s characteristic of the novel that this cathartic final scene for Mac is bordered by lots of technical talk involving him being sent to Uranus to mine tarranium (it came from Uranus, I knew it did!). There are lots of continuity references in the book, if that’s the sort of thing that spreads your marmite.
The book also has a go at being political… and that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about. There is a nasty corporation called, rather amusingly, Bootstrap… as thought it was set up by Norman Tebbit or someone like that. The representative of the corporation is a nasty woman who is nasty because she’s nasty, and a woman because she’s a woman. She does nasty things in a brusque, rude manner, because she’s nasty and brusque and rude. Everybody else in the story seems to be well-meaning, if equally characterless. Some are delineated by being Spanish or Welsh. The rest blur into one indistinct melange even as you read. (So quite like a mid-Troughton space base story in fact!) The point is that there is one nasty corporate person who causes problems for a whole bunch of people who seem less real than her because she at least has a distinguishing feature, i.e her nastiness. She’s obsessed with efficiency and profit, which is presented as surprising, as though that isn’t what corporations hire people to do. In the end, the Doctor defeats her (while she rants in an overwrought style so stereotypically villainous that it frequently feels like the writer is taking the piss) and the people of the colony suddenly decide to declare independence from Earth (and from Bootstrap). The ‘Planetary Ethics Committee’ looks set to help them, because they’re an ethics committe and, as such, are ethical… like the Spanish character mentioned above who is also nice because he works for them.
To be honest, it’s no surprise to me that Steven Baxter’s story is simplistic and sketchy in its representation of politics. The Time Ships, his sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, chose to eschew anything resembling Wells’ approach, which was to use the device of time travel as a way of satirircally examining the class struggle through the prism of Darwinism. Instead, Baxter mistakes the literary device, the time machine itself, for the crux of the matter… and delves into lots of stuff inspired by 20th century theoretical physics. Alternate universes, etc.
The stuff I want to mention comes later in the book. The Doctor makes a series of political pronouncements. In response to the evil ravings of the nasty corporate utilitarian (who is so evil she sends kids off to work early in the morning!), he announces that “there are ways of achieving economic progress without exploiting people!” Later, when helping the human colonists begin to set up their new, independent republic, he tells them they don’t need to invent a new political system because they can just adapt the best systems yet devised by humanity, namely the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA.
Now, I’m not going to launch into a great diatribe about whether you can have non-exploitative capitalism (if you’ve ever read this blog before you can probably guess my position). Nor am I going to be boring on the subject of what’s wrong with the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA. Nor am I going to dwell on better ways of organising society that have, occasionally and briefly, appeared before being crushed by… well, often by people like British parliamentarians and American statesmen. Nor am I going to do anything more than glancingly refer to what I see as the stuntedness and narrow-mindedness of this manifestation of ‘capitalist realism’ and liberal contentedness. ‘What is, is right’, etc. Apart from anything else, this is far from unprecedented in Doctor Who novels. Terrance Dicks had Benny suggest the two Houses of the British state as a model of workable democracy in his New Adventure Blood Harvest. Nor am I going to do anything more than mention the fact that this inspiring revolution of the colonists in Baxter’s novel, this declaration of independence clearly modelled on the American revolt against British rule (even down to them having a ‘constitutional convention’), happens without any mass revolt, mass involvement, mass discontent… without any apparent movement of the people themselves whatever. The nasty corporate lady is frozen in a block of ice and, hey presto, everyone decides to be an independent republic. The resulting political ferment is organized, terribly politely and calmly, by the Mayor. The Doctor then tells them that they are “free to sell their labour to Bootstrap, or not”… he doesn’t say how they’ll survive if they chose not to. I guess the labour market is so self-evidently fair (once the one corporate tyrant who spoils it for everone is disposed of) that nothing more need be said.
What I am going to make a fuss about is the sheer cheek involved in inserting sweeping political statements into the mouth of the Doctor, especially when he is being used as Baxter uses him: as the barometer of wisdom in the story. Somehow it seems especially egregious to put such things into the mouth of the second Doctor. I don’t recall him ever making any such politically particular statements during his tenure. General statements of principle, sure… but explicit political judgements? That’s more the province of his successor.
Look, let’s just consider a counter case. Let’s just imagine a writer trying to make the second Doctor say anything more radical than this kind of contented liberalism and pro-market democracy. What if this hypothetical writer wanted the Doctor to suggest… oooh, I dunno… basing the organisation of the new colony on the Paris Commune, or the Soviet workers’ democracy of 1917, or the workers’ councils of Germany in 1918? Let’s imagine a writer who tried to make a text version of Patrick Troughton declare the advantages of the dictatorship of the proletariat. I’m not necessarily saying the Doctor should be given such lines, or advocate such ideas. I’m just asking what would happen if anybody tried to make him. I don’t expect it’d make it into print, and I daresay it would be the cause of astonishment if it did.
On one level, this is nothing but the observation that minority views are less frequently treated as acceptable by the mainstream. And to an extent this is fair enough. But my point – such as it is – is wider than that. I’m not complaining that certain views are ‘under-represented’. I’m offering an illustration of how prevailing ideology insinuates itself, even into the most seemingly innocuous contexts, via its very usualness and apparent neutrality.
I’m not a regular reader of the spin-off novels, but I’d be fairly confident in betting that, by and large, they feature a Doctor whose moral and political ideas never stray too far from the magnetic pole of contented liberal ‘capitalist realism’. I think it’s potentially instructive to ponder just how much the franchise remains a product of a prevailing ideological system, almost certainly closed – as a matter of course, to the point where any alternative seems inherently laughable to most people – to seriously dissenting perspectives.
As I say, this isn’t a complaint… as such. I don’t long for a Doctor who speaks like an anti-capitalist or a socialist. I don’t know that such a thing would be helpful, let alone interesting. The reinforcement of prevailing ideology is useful to an ideological system because it forms one more note in a symphony of cultural reinforcement, a symphony that drowns out any other music. The proffering of a dissenting view in a cultural product like Doctor Who would merely be an oddity, of little persuasive power. The point is that it doesn’t happen… and, by and large, we don’t notice that it doesn’t happen. Nor do we notice, by and large, that established and prevailing ideology does make itself felt everywhere. It’s in the nature of a prevailing ideology to seem invisible, precisely because it is prevailing.
That’s why I always laugh when I hear that popular cant about how dangerous ‘Isms’ are. The people who say stuff like that never seem to imagine, even for a moment, that they themselves might be thinking within an ideology, an ideology that we might even want to call ‘anti-Ismism’.
It’s merely an observation.