(Because someone is going to comment, the titular head of state is also the titular head of the church. The line between it and destructive theocracy is, in the case of the UK, one of active and continual choice not to do anything unseemly with the fact that they are ruled by a monarch who is also the head of the church. I don’t even note this as a fault in the nature of British government – clearly they do just fine with this setup. Complain all you want about the fundamentals, the thing works. In practice, the US has more of a problem with theocratic lunatics than the UK does, so it’s not like fundamental separation of church and state is a panacea or even, for that matter, particularly effective. My point here is really just for American readers – not that there are any the day before Thanksgiving, making this a dumb day for a major post, but oh well – the claim that the correct role of the BBC is to bring God back into national life has a different relationship with the structure and principles of British government than it would with the structure and principles of the US government. You’re not arguing against the grain of the Constitution there, in no small part because the UK doesn’t have one of those.)
(Oh, and for the UK readers, Thanksgiving is what we have as our autumnal holiday because we just can’t look ourselves in the mirror if we’re calling something “October Bank Holiday.” We’re not sure if we envy or pity you for being able to.)
There is a philosophical landmine here that we are going to have to pause on for a moment. Because that list of four values does not cohere. “Equal consideration of all viewpoints” and “probity” are necessarily in opposition. If you hold to a specific moral code, you necessarily consider some viewpoints – namely those antithetical to that moral code – as unequal in stature. That’s not equal consideration. Liberal democracy does not hold totalitarianism in equal consideration, at least not unless you dress it up in the rhetoric of self-advancement. There is no such thing as complete cosmopolitanism. And this point underlies the fundamental difference between two visions of liberalism that have been quietly and at times loudly coming into conflict throughout the period this blog has been tracking. And, for that matter, two visions that are still pretty much the big headline because philosophical shifts take place over decades and we’re still playing this game. To wit, look at what’s going on in the streets of New York, Oakland, London, in Tahir Square, in college campuses across America, and thousands of other places. Yes, this is one of those “let’s describe big political realignments” posts that always attract so many comments.
Postmodern liberalism, on the other hand, rejects this idea. At its most basic level, it rejects the sort of hyper-sanitized purity of it. Democracy doesn’t work because it picks the right option, it works because anything else is even crueler. (Which is, of course, basically the content of Churchill’s famous line about democracy being the worst system of government. The transition from Enlightenment era to postmodernism was not a lightswitch event any more than the transition to science was. For one thing, you had to go through modernism.) Moral rightness does not inherently rise to the top, and it certainly doesn’t with anything near the effectiveness that money and power do.
The response is Greene’s BBC. And this is where the art vs. commerce angle falls down on this debate. Because, in hindsight, we realize that Greene’s BBC was putting out some of the best art ever to be made for television, and thus criticizing him for embracing commerce over art is nonsense. Yes, he did embrace commerce in ways previous heads hadn’t, but he did so in a way that did not oppose it to art. Another way to look at this is to say that what Greene did was move the BBC towards a more postmodern sort of liberalism. He actually took seriously the idea that the BBC should equally consider all viewpoints and made television that came from multiple viewpoints. That’s the whole idea of social realism – that it gives the audience viewpoints they wouldn’t be exposed to and shows them aspects of the world they didn’t know about. Television, under Greene, isn’t a device to show The Truth but rather a device to show more information, more perspectives, more things.
There is still an embrace of cosmopolitanism here, but there’s a fundamental difference in goals. Enlightenment liberalism embraces cosmopolitanism because it believes that a single “best view” will bubble up to the top. Postmodern liberalism embraces it because it believes that given a sufficient critical mass of views the worst views will wither and die, and that this is about the best you can hope for in terms of social progress. It recognizes that progress is not about approaching a defined goal of the future but about cleaning up the reiterated fossils littering the present. That the march of history is not about the oncoming rush of the future but about the steady killing of the past. The production of new ideas and new perspectives is the material fuel that enables this, and is thus valuable. Postmodern liberalism values cosmopolitanism because cosmopolitanism breeds the conditions in which decaying ideologies are sped to their deaths.
This finally brings us around to the earlier point I made about this being the start of the Long 1980s. It’s not a big spoiler that the 1980s, in both the US and UK, were dominated by conservative politics. But there’s a particular model of conservatism that we see here – one that’s still enormously powerful and is still recognizable as what things like the Occupy movement are reacting against. And what’s particularly insidious about this sort of conservatism is that it is in many ways the logical endpoint of Enlightenment liberalism.
In America this fact has become completely explicit, with the right wing clinging to the Constitution in a large part because they want to pretend that no significant developments in moral or political philosophy have happened since 1787. The Enlightenment is, in this context, unambiguously treated as the last word on politics. (There is, of course, an odd fundamentalism to this – a decaying ideology reverting to its original form in a last, choking stab at purity of reiteration.) But more broadly, the right wing trades on an Enlightenment model of individual liberty. And for a variety of reasons, the most obvious ones being that the Enlightenment model of individual liberty was created by rich white men who naively assumed everyone else was basically like them, this model itself is corrupt. It’s not a matter of misusing the model. Rather, it’s one of utter fealty to the model having catastrophic results. Libertarianism is little more than a proof by contradiction starting with the premises of Enlightenment liberalism in which everybody forgot what to do after you find the contradiction.
It should be no surprise that Whitehouse was, in the end, an ally of the Thatcher government. They shared, after all, a commitment to Enlightenment liberalism. The evangelical Christians that took Whitehouse seriously were part of Thatcher’s base. They were not allies as such – in truth, Thatcher’s ideology was always more economic than social. But they shared a hatred for postmodern liberalism, and a reliance on the idea of the “silent majority.”
There are few concepts more insidious than that of the “silent majority.” This is true for one very simple reason, which is that silence is already antithetical to postmodern liberalism. If social progress is understood as the demolition of the past via the continual acceleration of new forms of thought then there is nothing more toxic to that than the idea of people who simply refuse to play with the creation and engagement of new forms of thought. Silence, in the context of the silent majority, is nothing more than a refusal to play – a complete rejection of the idea that you can be challenged. If there is one point of view postmodernism is very, very clear on, it is that you should make a lot of noise. Preferably obnoxious noise.
Again, then, no surprise that Whitehouse’s arguments, based as they were on appeals to this silent majority, were appallingly incompetent. She had been targeting Doctor Who since about Genesis of the Daleks, with her most famed line being a description of the show as “teatime brutality for tots.” But the fuss she raised that ended up bringing Hinchcliffe down was due to the episode three cliffhanger of The Deadly Assassin, in which Goth drowns the Doctor. The director, David Maloney (who, sadly, never returns to the series following Talons of Weng-Chiang, having been working on it off and on since The Mind Robber), opted to do that cliffhanger with a freeze frame on the Doctor’s submerged head. And Whitehouse flipped out, claiming that children would think the Doctor’s head was underwater for the whole week and would be terrified by not knowing if he survived, while simultaneously claiming, in what seems like something of a contradiction, that they would all try to drown their brothers. Which, I mean, you can kind of get some way of connecting those, I suppose, in which the show is teaching kids that you can hold your breath for a week, but, um, seriously?
I took a shot at this kind of thinking way back in the Hartnell era
, but let’s be clearer here. Even if one grants some set of claims about the harmful effects of violence in the media on children – and notably, these claims have generally failed to survive any scholarly scrutiny – this position is indefensible for the simple reason that it is based on normalizing bad readings and sloppy thought. The failure to understand freeze frame only makes sense if you assume viewers who do not think at all about the technical properties of the medium at all in watching it. It relies on a naively immersive model of media in which television is a literal representation of things.
But look, we know it isn’t. We know that camera angles and editing are part of how storytelling works. We know, in fact, that it’s impossible to make sense of drama if you don’t understand the conventions of visual storytelling. To say that a freeze frame suggests the Doctor’s head being held underwater for a full week would require thinking that narrative time and audience time pass at the same rate – an assumption that can’t even be taken seriously. It requires that you think of a cliffhanger as a genuine source of danger for the character, and thus to think of Doctor Who not as a television show that exists in a real cultural context but as, to borrow a term from Gayatri Spivak, gossip about imaginary people – a look into the lives of people that could, in fact, simply die at any moment. It requires that the audience watch Doctor Who as found footage of real life as opposed to as a story.
And these are not subtle, advanced issues. The “kids don’t understand any of that” argument doesn’t wash. These are fundamental aspects of how the medium works. This is stuff you learn not as a value-added extra after learning basic visual literacy. This is the stuff you learn instinctively. As I understand it (and I should note that developmental psychology is not my field), it’s actually older people who have the most trouble with new-ish techniques like freeze frame because they’ve already learned visual literacy and don’t do as well with new tricks being added. Kids, as I understand it, pick this stuff up fine. Most people do. It’s only when they’re misled by morons like John Byrne or Mary Whitehouse that the sense of functional visual literacy they develop by reading/watching is overwritten by idiotic aesthetics of “immersion” and “realism.” Even if the episode three cliffhanger of The Deadly Assassin were a terrible thing that would deform children for years, it sure as hell wasn’t for the reasons Mary Whitehouse said it was.
And this, more even than the censorship, is what I, at least, find so horrific about Whitehouse’s arguments. It’s not merely that they attack a show I love that provides what I think is a real social good. (Though I think in the end Whitehouse was either implicitly or explicitly aware of the degree to which the show’s ideology was opposed to hers. Simply put, it’s difficult to believe the idea of someone who watches and pays attention to a lot of Doctor Who ever agreeing with Whitehouse.) It’s the fact that she’s doing it by mainstreaming visual illiteracy. It’s the fact that on the way to “censor the violence” she insists on stopping off at actually and overtly endorsing uncritical and bad reading. If she had the integrity to actually accuse Doctor Who of being left-leaning postmodernist with Marxist influences, that would be one thing. Instead she just engaged in the narrative equivalent of climate change denial, peddling incompetent practices as something that should be taken seriously.
But, of course, the silent majority is absolved of all responsibility for this. Being silent, their views must be respected without argument, for no argument is possible. You can, of course, try to argue. Every viewpoint must be given fair representation, after all. But the opposition viewpoints are minority viewpoints. They occupy defined roles on the margins, existing only to be rejected in favor of the enlightenment of the majority, which need not argue when it can simply win elections. It doesn’t matter how clever you are or how good your argument is, because in the end, you’re talking to a brick wall.
This viewpoint was toxic enough when it was used to justify tuning out the counterculture in 1968
. But in the 1980s it finds itself wedded to existing structures of power in the worst ways possible. This was, as is becoming increasingly clear, the real horrific legacy of the 1980s – the way in which neoliberal economic policies created the conditions for a media that actively propped up particular forms of ignorance when they benefitted those with power.
This is where Whitehouse and Thatcher’s ideologies part ways. There is no serious way to think that Thatcher’s government, profoundly media-savvy as it was, actually believed the incompetent critiques offered by Whitehouse. They were not stupid people. And there’s ample evidence that Thatcher had little actual fondness for Whitehouse and her views. Unlike Whitehouse, Thatcher was invested in art vs. commerce debate. Also unlike Whitehouse, Thatcher recognized Hugh Greene’s BBC as art, and much preferred to see it replaced with commerce, because commerce would, in the end, reliably reinforce her ideological positions. But Whitehouse was useful in that she could draw crowds, and thus corral the silent majority, which was a useful 10% or so of the population to have on your side. And as long as she corralled it at mutual enemies like the BBC, Thatcher’s government was happy to have Whitehouse around even if her actual views were nonsense.
(I’d treat Whitehouse as a victim in all of this, but I can’t bring myself to. She was a bigot and an idiot who understood nothing about television and wasn’t going to let that get in the way of her crusade. She and Thatcher share their commitment to Enlightenment liberalism. Hers was, in the end, less devastatingly effective than Thatcher’s, and so Thatcher won. As she usually did, unfortunately.)
The real point is that there’s an ugly logic to this that is chillingly familiar. The use of power to sidestep the messy materialism of the battle of ideas, treating the fact of victory as an argument for the legitimacy of the victory. Which brings us back to that most inseparable of concepts for me with Doctor Who: bullying.
There are moments in life where you have a sudden and striking realization of just how fucked up a person you are. I had one about a month ago. I was driving past my old middle school – the school I was attending the year I got chicken pox and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Somewhere in the decades since I left there, an annual tradition of a scarecrow competition began – in Halloween, some class or another within the school makes big, colorful scarecrows and sets them up on the front lawn of the school. The scarecrows are generally in the form of recognizable pop culture icons – Spongebob or Spiderman or the like. And this year, there was a Dalek. And I found myself choking up at the sight of it not just the first time I drove past, but every time I drove past. It was a flawless impression of the presumptuous pathos with which adults view “It Gets Better” ads. (Those being bullied tend to view them with an air of “so stop screwing around with the webcam and make it better, jackass.”)
I talked last time about the degree to which being an American Doctor Who fan in middle school in 1993 was a miserable experience. And we’ll eventually get to 1993 and play that story out right alongside the Doctor Who I was reading. But I should perhaps stress the depth of the crap that was waded through. On two separate occasions people stole Doctor Who books from me, destroyed them. Once the torn up remains were shoved in my desk, the other time I got to see them kicking the book around the hall. The defense was predictable – that these people, who had been mocking me for liking this weird Doctor Who thing they’d never heard of for months, were somehow unaware that the Doctor Who books they were destroying were mine. Because, I mean, there were lots of other people with them.
My middle school had, while I was there, an overt policy called “restitution” in which, instead of handling misbehavior punitively, decided that the two sides of a dispute should come to a mutual understanding and that someone who does something to hurt somebody else shouldn’t be punished but should have to make it better.
It was a disgusting system that served bullies above all else. For one thing, it was toothless – even if the school had the authority to, say, make students replace the destroyed books, importing obscure sci-fi books from the UK wasn’t something anybody in Newtown knew how to do in 1993 besides my mother. In practice, nobody even tried to make them offer restitution in such an actually meaningful sense. Why would they when they could have us both apologize regardless of what actually happened.
But even if they had, the idea that bullying can be undone is farcical. Even if the immediate damage is subsequently undone, the real damage of bullying is the longer term knowledge that people are going to hit you. They’re going to hit you because they don’t understand you or because they view your intelligence as a threat. And no restitution undoes that lesson.
And so I choked up at the sight of a Dalek scarecrow outside my old school. Because the idea that over the course of nearly twenty years my popular culture actually won so that it’s possible to have a team of four middle schoolers who build a Dalek in art class and don’t get the shit kicked out of them for it is… somehow just too much for me. I am utterly overwhelmed by it.
So for a fucked up lunatic like me, it’s impossible, in 2011, not to see the vicious extent to which the ideological legacy of the 1980s is one of bullying. There’s no other explanation for a story like this
, about a bank specializing in foreclosures holding a halloween party in which their employees freely mocked the people they were busily throwing out of their homes. There’s no other way to read a description of police pinning nonviolent student protesters to the ground and forcing pepper spray down their throats. There’s no other way to read yearlong jail sentences for stealing bottled water during the London riots while ignoring the poverty that led to the riots. In every case there’s that familiar overexertion of power – the need to demonstrate it for its own sake. And of course there is. Why settle for the banality of evil when you can have the probity of evil. The decent, hardworking middle-American cops of New York City can be trusted to beat socialist hippie dirtbags just like they deserve.
And, of course, bullying is in its own ways intertwined with the excessive brutality of fan politics, within which there are too many stories of unconscionable acts of sheer nastiness to even sort through effectively. And this is a legacy that spills into the modern show, from the utter hate-fests that review threads on forums turn into right up to the DWM-published fan who was tweeting earlier this week about the inherent worthlessness of a PhD in media studies and how you should beware Doctor Who fans who have them. (Wonder who he was talking about.) None of this is new, of course – I’m not saying that bullying was invented in the 1980s. Rather I am saying that it is impossible to understand the 1980s without understanding the way in which bullying works.
Let’s start with a definition. At its most basic level, bullying is the use of power to cause harm when the power is not being used in accordance with the purpose (if any exists) for which it was granted. That doesn’t mean that breaking up an illegal protest is bullying. It does mean that holding a nonviolent protester down and pepper-spraying them is. Let’s further add a few clarifications. Bullying specifically means the use of force, whether social or physical. Inasmuch as it explains why the person being bullied deserves negative treatment, the explanation is generally based on who they are as opposed to what they’ve done – they’re a nerd, or they’re gay, not “they insulted me for being dumber than them” or “they triggered my own neuroses about anal penetration and that made me angry.” And bullying carries with it the threat, implied or explicit, of future sanction. The nature of this last point varies heavily based on who’s bullying. A sixth grader’s threat of further sanction amounts to little more than “and I’ll hit you tomorrow too.” When you get into powerful political figures making bullying comments, on the other hand, the threat becomes much broader and more ambiguous. But it is still just as clearly received by its intended audience.
This, rather than the actual aggression, is the worst part of being bullied. In the moment, there is enough adrenaline to distract you from a proper consideration of how much this sucks. No. The single worst part are the long amounts of idle time you get to spend constantly formulating escape plans. What seat on the bus gives the driver the best view of you? Which piece of playground equipment is least likely to have anyone bother you? What do you say that gets him not to hit you? It’s the way in which your world re-orders to be about avoiding getting hit. So that the existence of people who want to hurt you is just something you assume.
Then come the lessons. There is no reasoning to be done with the people who want you to suffer. That in the end, they want you to suffer because they can make you suffer, and because they can get away with it, so that means it’s OK. Whether because the laws that govern it are soft enough to make it de facto legal – as bullying under restitution basically was – or because they have the ability to lie effectively. When raw wealth owns the entire media then it is far too easy to say that you didn’t know who’s Doctor Who book it was, or that people might think a cliffhanger lasts an entire week diegetically, or that the proposed health care bill contains death panels.
These are the legacies of the 1980s. An economic ideology that fostered profits above all else created a world in which power justifies its own use and the maxim that history is written by the victors becomes a moral principle instead of a cynical observation. Were these the legacies on display at the start? No. We’ll get in time to the Winter of Discontent and the circumstances that brought Thatcher to power. But as Magnus Greel revealed to us, the future recurs as well. To go into the Long 1980s pretending that their consequences were other than what they were is foolish.
And this is what makes the Hinchcliffe era getting brought down in an early skirmish of that larger culture war so sickening. Whatever the flaws of the Hinchcliffe era – and there were some, and we identified many of them last entry – for it to be brought down by feckless bullies is just crushing.
But, of course, it’s only the Hinchcliffe era that gets brought down. Doctor Who survives. Gravely wounded, yes. And arguably, as I’ve said, you can start tracing a direct narrative of Doctor Who’s cancellation starting here – a chain of creative decisions and reactions against past creative decisions that ends with the show finally losing all support at the BBC. But then, other shows Whitehouse took on (Till Death Do Us Part) got cancelled outright under her assault. Doctor Who survives another twelve seasons, then comes back for another run of, to date, at least seven. Whitehouse lost. We won. The Dalek went up outside the middle school.
But how? This is, after all, the real question. Because one thing that quickly becomes clear when dealing with the conservative ideology that stemmed from the 1980s is that Enlightenment liberalism is completely unsuitable to the task. This is because, as I said, what rose in the 1980s was not, in fact, opposed to Enlightenment liberalism but was the logical conclusion of it. Like any ideology surviving past its time, it becomes malignant. New ways forward are necessary. Or, to put it another way, there’s no way to fight back against bullies within their rules. That’s the other big lesson. The rules are never going to help you.
This is the other story of Doctor Who in the 80s. Not a replacement for the story of how a great show finally slips and lands in it, but a counterpart to it. A story about learning how to fight bullies. A story about surviving. If the first phase of this blog – the Long 1960s – was about the history of utopian ideology as told through a British science fiction series, then this is, at its heart, the history of the marginalized and the counterculture as told through one. This is a history of freaks and weirdos of various sorts, whether self-identified or mockingly identified by the people who hate them: Punks, homosexuals, goths, fanboys, women, racial minorities, and nerds, to name just a few. It’s a history of how marginal culture works, and of how it finds ways of wielding power. And of how marginal culture gets steamrolled, kicked, and beaten down.
Here, then, is our first tool. Because even after everything that could be found to criticize about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, watching it some part of me, fresh from choking up at a paper mache Dalek, was busy bringing an eighteen-year long wait to a delightful end. For all the deep-seated cynicism of that story, there is also a sense of manic glee to it. A telltale whiff of mercury, if you will. A refusal to slow down or to allow boredom to happen. A driving mania. It is giddily, madly, delightfully fun to watch. It’s screamingly obvious why it’s been ripped off so many times. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it has a wonderful and friendly clever wizard who runs about being brilliant. It is so blessedly fun to watch, and fun to love. This in and of itself has power. Once one accepts a position on the margins, one of the most savagely effective moves one can make is to have the unmitigated gall to enjoy yourself there – to act as though one would rather be there.
And then there is also the same thing we began the Hinchcliffe era looking at
. Fear. As I have said before, there are few purposes more fundamental to children’s fiction than completely screwing up children for life. The best children’s fiction disturbs and unnerves. And for all its flaws, The Talons of Weng-Chiang does. Heck, the cackling, snorting madness of Mr. Sin is unnerving even as an adult. But it is, oddly, its ending that is the most satisfying in this regard. The climax of the story is a straight lift from the first episode of The Ark in Space – an attempt to hide as something shoots laser beams at you. It’s an odd sort of symbolic unity for the Hinchcliffe era, with the first and last episodes shown each using the same plot point – a reminder that, in this regard, the era put its best foot forward, establishing from the start the thing that would really shape its legacy – a sense of giddy, terrified suspense that guaranteed that it could not be forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered…
History repeats itself. And now the dizzying, endlessly complex horror of the Hinchcliffe era is history, freed to happen again and again. Held in the memory of a generation of freaks, waiting patiently for their time to come.