It’s November 5th, 2009. Cheryl Cole is at number one with “Fight For This Love,” with Michael Buble, Robbie Williams, and two separate songs by the Black Eyed Peas also charting. In news, Rhode Island re-criminalizes prostitution, the Yankees win the World Series, and a U2 concert at the Brandenberg Gate celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall finds itself mired in a strange and ironic controversy as a large wall is build around the venue.
“I hope this sci-fi show does a story about the conflict between rationalism and superstition,” said no one ever, and yet the wish is still granted for the umpteenth time in The Eternity Trap. The story is not bad – it’s a perfectly competent execution of “let’s do The Stone Tape for children,” managing to be a spooky haunted house story without ever crossing the line into objectionable or overly scarring. There’s something a little sad in the fact that it doesn’t try to scar children for life, but equally, The Sarah Jane Adventures doing a haunted house story probably should target fun instead of traumatic, so, you know. Plus, it’s got Donald Sumpter, who is positively gifted in the art of playing a raving and frothing bad guy named something like “Erasmus Darkening.”
It’s also worth noting that The Eternity Trap takes a more ambiguous line on the science/superstition debate than is normal. Clear care has been taken in making Darkening inscrutable. The number of times the narrative goes “ah, yes, this may behave 100% like a supernatural event, but actually it’s got a vague scientific explanation” is impressive. No, the creature isn’t an unknowable monster… it’s just a completely unknown one from some parallel dimension. No, Darkening isn’t an alchemist. He’s actually an alien… from a totally unknown planet who created “a computer built from brass and iron,” a phrase that still carefully ties it to the 17th century period it ostensibly hails from. No, the house isn’t haunted by ghosts, because technically the people only got spirited to another dimension as opposed to dying. There’s a constant resistance to completely ceding ground to rationalism even as the underlying ethos of the episode is explicitly rationalist.
This is, for the most part, more interesting. The arch-skeptical ideology is, let’s face it, boring. But more to the point, it’s preposterous within The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is in no way a rationalist show. I mean, this is the dirty little secret of every single sci-fi show to try to push the hardline rationalist perspective. Sci-fi isn’t rationalist. The Sarah Jane Adventures sure as heck isn’t. I mean, this is straightforward on a basic level. If you flop off to, say, RationalWiki or FreethoughtBlogs and start talking about how all those people who believe in ghosts are cranks because it’s obviously aliens that’s actually done it, you’re not going to be taken seriously. The conspiracy theories that say that the Illuminati is a front for the mind controlling space lizards are not, in point of fact, any more sane than the ones that go with more old-fashioned “it’s paranormal.” Neither explanation is actually rationalist.
The only thing that makes science fiction appear to be rationalist is, in effect, the flavor of its iconography. Put a lot of flashing lights on something and it’s rationalist. Put a lot of candles or glowing auras on it and it’s superstition. In terms of television, that’s how it works – something that The Eternity Trap ends up demonstrating aggressively in its repeated “oh, but there’s technically a sci-fi explanation” approach. There’s no substance to the critique here, in other words. Superstition isn’t bad because it’s wrong so much as because it’s not sci-fi. It’s less “this is a dangerous epistemology that opens the door to cranks and con-men who thrive on your ignorance” and more “don’t wear stripes with plaids.”
It’s interesting, though, that the underlying fraud here is alchemy. Part of Darkening’s evil is that he defrauded Lord Marchwood by pretending to be an alchemist for years. Obviously, the ears of this blog perk up around here. For one thing, alchemy is not, within Doctor Who, fraudulent. It’s been solved at least twice: The Evil of the Daleks and The Brain of Morbius both stipulate that alchemical goals are, in fact, possible. For another, there’s a certain line of argument I’ve been known to make that suggests that alchemy is a fundamental theme of Doctor Who. So the idea that alchemy is an evil fraud representative of all that is wrong about superstition and mysticism is one to view with some level of skepticism, particularly in a story that does a manifestly poor job of actually rejecting superstition or suggesting that what it does is any different.
The secret of alchemy, as we’ve often said, is material social progress. Within The Sarah Jane Adventures, this has long been particularly potent: its role as children’s entertainment carries with it a real job of making the world a better place. We just finished talking about Children of Earth and its critique of reproductive futurism, particularly the role of the child as an essentially featureless and unengaged citizen. The Sarah Jane Adventures goes to great and deliberate lengths to avoid this. That’s the nature of good children’s entertainment, after all: it creates an active, contentful form of childhood that is engaged in the world.
What, then, does The Eternity Trap teach us? Well, it teaches us that Toby is wrong to be upset with his father for not taking his childhood experience of seeing a grey thing haunting his bed seriously. It teaches us that Toby’s exploration of ghosts is wrong, even though he conducts it scientifically and, more to the point, that his decision to explore the seemingly paranormal just rescued hundreds of people from an eternity of suffering. It teaches us, in other words, not to be curious, to accept established authority, and that children, if they go to adults with their strange problems, shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously, and that this is OK.
It doesn’t mean to. It even tries not to. It tries to teach that scientific curiosity is good and that you should try to find the real reason behind things. And those are good messages. Except that it tries to do it in a world where trans-dimensional accelerators can be built out of 17th century supplies by aliens. And this is the crux of the problem: when the entire milieu of your story accepts the existence of things that do not exist in the real world, you cannot actually then present a scientific explanation for those things. There is no scientific explanation for ghosts because ghosts do not exist. There are not actually houses in which centuries dead alchemists roam the halls fighting swashbuckling lords. To explain the non-existent through rational means is not just a futile quest, but an actively self-destructive one.
And there’s really no way out of it. For all that The Eternity Trap tries gamely to avoid fully committing on rationalism vs mysticism, by setting them up as a conflict in the first place it traps itself. It sets up a wholly illusory dichotomy, and then attempts to find any profundity in its false division. Of course it fails.
And this is not even, to be clear, some critique of rationalism. The message that science works and that there are bad people who lie to call science into doubt for their own selfish gain is important. It’s massively important in the present day, when anti-science propaganda is used to deny the existence of climate change in favor of short-term profits. “Rationalism matters” is a hugely important point, which is exactly why a show like The Sarah Jane Adventures, with its fantastic premises and unreal conceits really shouldn’t be making a half-assed and wholly contentless exploration of it. Rationalism is too important to treat like this.
This makes two stories in a row we’ve had to criticize for what are ultimately political reasons, but it’s important to make a distinction. The horrendous treatment of coercion in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith is, at the end of the day, an unnecessary flaw. The resolution could readily be rewritten to instead have Peter admit that he’s a complete cad and then decide to redeem himself, instead of going with that awful bit of dialogue about how Sarah Jane accepted his proposal before she was mind controlled. It wasn’t, and that’s terribly disappointing, and I really hope that everyone involved in that episode regrets missing that, but it’s still an incidental flaw.
That’s not what the ugliness of The Eternity Trap is, however. Its suggestion that children who tell their parents about things they don’t understand deserve to be dismissed as silly and that keeping an open mind is only good if you keep it open about the right things isn’t some accidental quirk of writing. It’s an inevitable consequence of the hollow, contradictory premise the story takes. When you start by exploring a completely false opposition and making an ideological conflict where none exists – such as, for instance, between aliens and ghosts – it’s not just unsurprising that you come up with ideologically vacant and grotesque conclusions. It’s inevitable.
Which is, in the end, the problem here. The Eternity Trap is undoubtably a well-made little ghost story. But it’s still a well-made execution of something that oughtn’t have been made in the first place.