Outside the Government: The Eternity Trap
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.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:24 am
You seem to have completely confused rationalism with its opposite, empiricism. You should take greater care.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:44 am
Wasn't the pilot of K9 brodcast a couple of days after The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith? Are we not doing that, then?
February 26, 2014 @ 1:13 am
I haven't actually seen this one so I'm totally unqualified to comment but based purely on your description it occurs to me that, rather than a rationalism versus superstition debate, this episode is aiming rather lower. Surely it's just a standard Scooby Doo plot that's got itself too hung up on the 'old janitor's' motivation and forgot to be on the side of 'those meddling kids'. The original Scooby gang always believed totally in the irrational manifestation until the mundane reveal. Doctor Who despite its alchemical core usually assumes a scientific basis until the 'real' often occult motivation is uncovered which is then retconned within its own narrative and resolved with some timey wimey gobbledygook. It's a difficult task that not all writers can pull off.
February 26, 2014 @ 6:17 am
The original Scooby gang always believed totally in the irrational manifestation until the mundane reveal.
Well, Shaggy and Scooby did (probably due to their chemical addiction to mind-altering Scooby snacks. In the original series, Velma, Fred and (to a lesser extent) Daphne always sought a rational explanation for what was happening with the goal of trapping "the monster" and finding out who it really was. I remember as a kid being deeply disappointed when the series was retooled to allow for storylines with actual paranormal bad guys. The addition of Scrappy Doo didn't help.
February 26, 2014 @ 6:21 am
The magic/science conflict has always been an issue for DW, especially in NuWho where, let's be honest, the sonic screwdriver is blatantly treated as a magic wand. Not to mention we have stories like "The Shakespeare Code" with alien witches whose "science and technology" consist primarily of spoken incantations and "Hide" which says that haunted houses are the result of aliens and time travelers faffing about while casually affirming that psychic abilities are real.
February 26, 2014 @ 8:36 am
I don't see how use of the screwdriver is worse than old Who, where the Third Doctor could solve any problem by reversing the polarity. And I remember Planet of the Spiders casually affirming that psychic abilities are real, too.
February 26, 2014 @ 8:48 am
Having written extensively on Scooby-Doo, I'll just say I think Anton B. is largely correct, if necessarily simplifying the premise for the topic at hand.
February 26, 2014 @ 8:51 am
Thanks for this, Phil. I always enjoy seeing people point out that science fiction is not actually the domain of the arch-rationalist crowd, no matter how fervently a certain subset of my franchise's fandom might cling to that notion.
It's an argument I'm going to have to look it in more detail myself in, oh, between three to eight years I'd say.
February 26, 2014 @ 9:43 am
Shaggy and Scooby had some supernatural abilities of their own – for example, the ability to conjure costumes from thin air and change into them in the half second between running into a room and the villain following them in.
February 26, 2014 @ 9:46 am
Just wanted to slip in here and politely request that Phil revive the TARDIS Eruditorum video review thing when we get to "The Eleventh Hour", just to do a similar comparison between the aesthetic styles of that episode and the RTD era that Phil did in his "Leisure Hive" and "Time and the Rani" articles.
Would be interesting. 🙂
February 26, 2014 @ 10:09 am
Josh, it was indeed your excellent ruminations on Scooby Doo which I enjoyed reading immensely some time ago that inspired my comment.
Perhaps you can clarify the comparison I was trying to make between that show and Doctor Who plus its spin-offs. Which was this –
The Scoobyverse is one where the paranormal.is accepted as at least possible until disproved whereas the Whoniverse actively dismisses the paranormal because science while constantly having its rationalist preconceptions upturned by wibbly wobbly potions.
February 26, 2014 @ 10:11 am
Hang on, Star Trek fans think science fiction is arch-rationalist?
Star Trek fans?
Oh my giddy aunt.
February 26, 2014 @ 10:32 am
Some of them do. It's the same group of modern (male) Nerd Culture people who throw a fit about Doctor Who not having a consistent model of time travel, who get really tetchy about the differences between "science fiction" and "fantasy" or who think Star Trek's fundamental value is teleological technoscientific futurism. And who write Star Trek: Year Four stories about the Large Hadron Collider.
Puzzlingly they don't seem to have a problem with Star Wars.
February 26, 2014 @ 10:37 am
"Hide" which says that haunted houses are the result of aliens and time travelers faffing about while casually affirming that psychic abilities are real
I don't remember a generalization — just that THAT haunted house was the result of aliens and time travelers faffing about. Then again, so was Gabriel Chase.
February 26, 2014 @ 10:40 am
February 26, 2014 @ 10:41 am
I think that's largely accurate. I personally tend to be more open to the reading that the supernatural actually textually exists in the world of Scooby-Doo (and thus the criminals are literally "fake ghosts" whose crime is using fear and intimidation for selfish ends) then most, but I know that's a minority opinion even more controversial then my shipping of Shaggy and Daphne.
Doctor Who I see as having its overall take on this, just like its overall take on anything, changing depending on who's writing at the moment. But as a general rule, we do seem to get the famous plot archetype of "something that looks paranormal is going on, but really it's aliens" that dates to at least the Hinchcliffe era happening quite frequently. Though now I'm treading on territory of people a bit more qualified than me.
Regardless, I don't think either show is really for the Arch-Rationalist crowd.
February 26, 2014 @ 11:58 am
I have to admit that when you start going on about "alchemy" and "material social progress", I generally have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:14 pm
Coincidentally, one of my Twitter friends tweeted a link to a Tumblr post yesterday saying the real power of Scooby-Doo (it's equivalent to "material social progress", if you like) is that the monsters aren't monsters. The monsters are lies by grown-ups who want to convince you to do something. Other adults might believe these lies. And the way you fight the lies is by thinking about things and coming to your own conclusions.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:35 pm
Might that be the analysis Chris Sims did awhile back? Because he and I have similar takes on the show. We have parallel readings we arrived at independently of each other, but that (I at least feel) are compatible.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:43 pm
IRC, This episode and Nightmare Man terrified me on first watch (as a college student) just because he kept appearing from nowhere when you weren't expecting it. Never mind explanations and logic, someone jumping out at you and going BOO! is still frighting, if not outright terrifying.
February 26, 2014 @ 12:44 pm
February 26, 2014 @ 1:31 pm
'Material social progress' means 'rising living standards', apparently. So basically Doctor Who reckons the secret to the universe is capitalism.
February 26, 2014 @ 1:47 pm
So basically Doctor Who reckons the secret to the universe is capitalism.
Eesh. I hope no-one's told Jack Graham…
February 26, 2014 @ 2:12 pm
The majority of people in the West have had no rise in incomes for the past thirty odd years. Up to a certain point capitalism raises living standards. And then it seems to stop for all but a small minority at the top of the heap.
One might also wonder whether rising incomes are really a good measure of living standards. (This would take an essay to address.)
But actually I don't think Phil does mean rising living standards. I think he means something like the wider distribution of the power for each person to determine their own life and desires. That is, if I have lots of money but somebody else can constrain what I spend it on or what I do with it, that doesn't count as material social progress.
February 26, 2014 @ 3:16 pm
Material Social Progress means that peoples lives are improving demonstrably. It doesn't mean capitalism. It involves things like education, social equality and (yes) living standards. Capitalism can be a means of MSP however it is by no means an endpoint or synonym. Capitalism is a system of gross inequity and causes a growing gap living standards internationally.
February 26, 2014 @ 8:06 pm
February 27, 2014 @ 3:29 am
Well obviously Star Wars is real.
February 27, 2014 @ 6:38 am
Having just googled, yes, it is. Just paras 10 and 11, but definitely from that article. I note that Sims, like me and Alan, thinks the supernatural shouldn't exist in Scooby-Doo, and makes much of Velma as the rationalist who looks for the logical explanation.
(I wonder what Sims made of subsequent episodes of Mystery Incorporated. You know, the ones where the whole town was built around a :Lovecraftian horror that was guarded by Conquistador ghosts.)
February 27, 2014 @ 6:39 am
February 27, 2014 @ 7:06 am
The following image seems relevant to this discussion: http://twitter.com/notjessewalker/status/439026530719522817
February 27, 2014 @ 7:47 am
Right, I can generally figure out what "material social progress" means in the context of the real world, just as I know what "alchemy" generally means. What I don't understand is what "material social progress" means in the context of Doctor Who, or what "alchemy" means outside the context of explicit alchemical references. Nor do I understand how these relate to one another.
February 27, 2014 @ 5:44 pm
Its suggestion that children who tell their parents about things they don’t understand deserve to be dismissed as silly –well, yes, that was Toby's experience, but surely the entirely show and the very nature of Sarah Jane is to present the opposite view–that some adults will understand.
February 27, 2014 @ 11:41 pm
Totally Bak- oh, that's been done.
February 28, 2014 @ 7:07 am
"Reverse the polarity" was generic technobabble admittedly drafted for an actor who refused to learn lots of technobabble that might have made better sense. The implication was still that there was technology involved, albeit over our heads, and doing this "reverse the polarity' thingy would cause that technology to work differently than it had been. Compare that to, say, The Big Bang, where Eleven just jams the screwdriver into the back of a two-foot-wide satellite dish to improve reception and, voila, he can hear River talking from untold millions of miles away.
February 28, 2014 @ 3:00 pm
In Doctor Who terms there's no material difference between the comparison you've suggested. Techobabble is just fake science designed to allow the show to tell the stories it wants to. So is the sonic screwdriver.
Personally, I don't care if the Tardis equivalent of dilithium crystals is plausible SF technology. In a lot of Doctor Who, technobabble is only there to justify the magical elements of the show to the parts of the audience that prefer sciencey explanations.
The only difference between the old show and the new show is that the new show replaces 'reverse the polarity' dialogue with 'point the sonic screwdriver' action, but the end result is the same.
I've been watching Image of the Fendahl tonight, which contains zero 'proper' science but lots of wonderfully daft occultiness dressed up as technobabble. The Smith / Moffat era fits well into that kind of tradition.