It’s October 20th, 2008. Pink is at number one with “So What,” a situation that lasts a week before Girls Aloud take over with “The Promise.” with Snow Patrol, Leon Jackson, Geraldine, Katy Perry, Kanye West, and the Saturdays also charting. In news, Colin Powell offers Barack Obama his endorsement for the Presidency, the New York City Council decides to allow Michael Bloomberg a third term, and Ted Stevens is found guilty of seven counts of fraud, a conviction that basically costs him his Senate seat before being overturned. That being the most American-centric news roundup I think this blog has ever done, we should also note that the episode of The Russell Brand Show in which Brand and Jonathan Ross place obscene prank phone calls to Andrew Sachs aired two days before this story.
This story being Secrets of the Stars. Let’s start with the obvious point, which is that even by the standards of Doctor Who’s long history of ignoring anything that might inadvertently be mistaken as scientific reason or plausibility, this episode does not make a bit of sense. It hinges on the idea that astrology is real, not because of our universe (where it can’t be, as we’re reassured repeatedly), but because it’s the science of that popular repository of magical stuff that needs a quasi-scientific explanation, the universe before ours. Where it is apparently thus the science of Abaddon. And the Beast. And probably some other stuff.
It is worth pausing a moment in order to attempt to wrap our heads around that, if only so that we may savor the strange feeling of our heads failing to gain any traction whatsoever and slowly sliding off to form gibbering, uncomprehending piles of head at the base of this plot point. Astrology’s central tenet is that the positions of astronomical bodies has causal effects on phenomena in the real world. This is already a dodgy proposition, given that astrology is based not so much on the positions of astronomical bodies in any absolute space but on their positions in relation to the observation point of Earth. The central concept of astrology, used prominently in Secrets of the Stars, is the zodiac – a chain of constellations that conveniently line up so that the sun moves through them over the course of a year. But when we say “the sun moves through them” what we mean is that from the vantage point of the Earth as it travels around the sun, the sun appears in the sky in positions corresponding to those constellations.
It is also worth remembering something we’ve discussed previously, which is that a constellation is not an astronomical phenomenon but a perceptual one. Constellations are not formations of stars in real space, but coincidences in which stars from wildly different places line up into a geometrical configuration that was aesthetically pleasing to some ancient astronomers. The constellation of Taurus, for instance, is comprised of stars ranging from thirty light years away to hundreds of light years way, with no influence on each other or interactions other than happening to appear in about the same place if you look from Earth. A constellation only exists for a given planet, in other words.
All of which makes astrology just about the only form of magic that makes less sense, rather than more, if you attribute it to the universe before ours. As a system of belief that depends not only on the specific arrangement of objects in the present universe but on the act of observing those objects from a specific vantage point within said universe, astrology really cannot belong to a universe in which none of those objects exist. This appears to leave Secrets of the Stars in a rather messy position. Far from doing the usual trick of “this seemingly unscientific thing has a scientific explanation,” the episode is left to instead pull off the mildly staggering feat of making astrology look even more like arbitrary mystical woo than it started.
It’s interesting that this should happen in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with its overt focus on Doctor Who in the mid-70s. Because in practice Secrets of the Stars is in many ways a thematic remake of Sarah Jane’s penultimate Doctor Who adventure, The Masque of Mandragora. In that story, way back when, we noted that there was an odd tension between the story’s ostensible embrace of hardline rationalism over the superstitions of mysticism and the fact that, being a narrative, it was in fact structured in a fundamentally mystical way. Because, of course, narrative is all arbitrary mystical woo. A thing happens because a writer asserted it did, and for no other reason. Causality and explanation is always an illusion – an ornate system designed to cover up the fact that things happen for no reason other than fiat. And so in a story when the astrologer proclaims that a character will die, even if the astrologer is fraudulent, even if astrology is rejected, it carries weight and foreshadowing simply because that is how the alchemy of narrative works.
And all of this fits within a large history of Doctor Who playing it a bit fast and loose with astronomical terms. The classic series is infamous for a swath of writers who never quite seem to understand how large a galaxy actually is, and the Doctor inexplicably describes the location of Gallifrey (in Sarah Jane’s first story, in fact) as “in the constellation of Kasterborous,” a statement that makes no apparent sense given the nature of a constellation. (From what planet, exactly, does Kasterborous exist? It cannot be Gallifrey, and it’s not Earth… the Sontaran homeworld, perhaps – that’s who he’s talking to at the time – but even this makes little sense given that a constellation doesn’t define a region of space.) Which is to say that Doctor Who’s narrative universe has always had a few problems with astrology, galaxies, and constellations, and that as aggressively non-sensical as Secrets of the Stars may be, it actually doesn’t cause anything about astrology, constellations, and the stars in Doctor Who to make any less sense than it did going in.
These themes have been an occasional obsession of TARDIS Eruditorum, however, and so it is worth reflecting on them at least a little. In the past we have suggested that the thing that makes any sense at all of this endless talk about constellations is if, in act, the act of observation is somehow crucial to self-understanding – a point we mostly raised in terms of Gallifrey’s mysterious location in a constellation, tying it to the notion of observation that seemed central to early depictions of Gallifrey. But here we have something else – a sense that the planet Earth is controlled, in a fundamental sense, by the nature of its perspective on the universe. The way the universe appears from Earth somehow controls Earth.
This is actually sensible. The realm of what is imaginable is, after all, constrains all that can be said or done. In this regard the idea of astrology controlling people makes an odd sort of sense. Astrology is, after all, an entirely perceptual phenomenon. But what, then, do we make of the claim that this power dates from the universe before ours? There is some sense built into this as well, inasmuch as it’s linked to the popular assumption that Gallifrey is located in the ancient past, but that’s New Adventures lore and thus, if not out of bounds, at least not the most satisfying thing to turn to. Though this is the angle that Faction Paradox, with its suggestion that the strong anthropic principle is one of the Time Lords’ most fundamental means of control over the universe, ultimately goes with.
But let’s offer a different approach. After all, we’ve been talking about “our” world through all of this like The Sarah Jane Adventures takes place in it, when, in point of fact, it clearly doesn’t. This is one of the oddities of the Davies era, after all – it’s the one era that cannot be read as taking place anywhere other than on television. It’s not just that it finally breaks the rules entirely on whether people know about aliens, but that its entire grammar at times is in terms of television. When big world events happen, the exposition takes the form of montages of television news, so that television forms the very fabric of this world. Even here, when Trueman controls the world, he does it through television. The dynamic of watching and of perspective cannot be removed from this equation.
In which case the universe from which astrology hails is not some dark and Lovecraftian realm, but our world – the world in which The Sarah Jane Adventures is crafted as television. This is, in many ways, the same issue that sprung up with The Masque of Mandragora. The reason astrology has power is that in television, everything is significant and communicative, and thus that the world works in a fundamentally mystical way. Mysticism, after all, is little more than the inappropriate attribution of causality. But in an Aristotelean structure in which everything makes everything else likely or necessary, everything really is causal, and mysticism is true. This has the benefit of being literally accurate – Trueman’s power really does come from the fact that the writers gave it to him. The people he controls really are controlled because their perceptions of the universe, perceptions which only exist in their creators’ insistences, declare that they are.
In which case the resolution, in which Sarah Jane’s never-birthed son is able to breaks Trueman’s hold is interesting precisely because it stems out of the rules of the narrative. What happens, in effect, is that authorial power reaches its limit. There is only so far this story can go before it stops being a Sarah Jane Adventures story. Eventually the narrative reasserts itself, with all of its own rules, and there becomes a point where the insistence of the old universe simply holds no sway. The narrative cannot allow certain interventions. And this is an important comfort to take with a show like The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is in hindsight haunted by the circumstances of its end.
It could also, admittedly, just be that this episode is a slightly naff children’s runaround.