|I was going to go with this, but I realized I didn’t actually|
know what Google’s policies on “adult content” were. Oh
yeah, NSFW and all.
When talking about The Scarlet Empress I suggested that there was an aesthetic of hedonism represented in the book that was a viable alternative to the paranoid excesses of the 1990s. Then, last post, I made some off-handed comments about abandoning ethics in favor of aesthetics. So I suppose this is a decent time to put my cards on the table, since the turn in question is a pretty massive one. And, more to the point, one that’s broadly germane to what the blog is doing through here.
It has escaped few readers’ notice that the tone of the blog has shifted as we’ve approached the present day. Since we’re now lagging the present only by about thirteen years, the lens of history has grown somewhat less clarifying. Put simply, it’s easier to talk about the movement of historical forces when your subject is 1969 or 1979 than it is 1989, and it’s harder still in 1999 or 2009. The game is still being played. If I say that the idealism of the 60s utopians gave way to the bleaker youth culture of punk and its descendants, well, that’s easy. No points on award for that. But if I start talking about what the culture of 1999 gave way to it means I have to declare a defining cultural milieu for the present day. Which, you know, how to be completely irrelevant in one easy step, that one.
But I’ve got to peel off the Band-Aid brand adhesive bandage eventually, and so we may as well. There is at least one shift left to be had in utopianism between 1999 and the present day. There’s a shift in paranoia as well, of course – two of them, really. But those are easier to track. Look for a big news event and you can find a shift in paranoia. The shifts in utopianism are altogether trickier. But equally, you can clearly see that we’ve had one because Doctor Who in 2005 is unlike what you’d have expected Doctor Who to be just six years earlier. We’ve already seen the technical transition to how to do Doctor Who, and for the most part that’s done: there haven’t been a lot of major jumps in the aesthetics of television since the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, things are getting a bit stagnant on that front. (Though actually, people have won Oscars for achievements in cinematography less bold than the camera-as-unreliable-narrator tricks in Day of the Moon)
But the philosophical transition is altogether more complex. Because there was something surprising about Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who when it showed up in 2005. And it struck a chord we didn’t expect, or even quite realize, could be played. And if 2005 was the first time that chord hit the mainstream then Queer as Folk in 1999 was the first time it was properly played. It wasn’t unprecedented, of course. Nothing ever is. You can see exactly where Davies’s influences came from here. The Virgin frocks he worked with on Springhill, his own earlier work, the nature of his love of Doctor Who, all of it goes methodically into the hopper that leads us here. But it was revelatory. It was the moment when the approach crystalized. Where you could see what this new thing was.
It wasn’t the moment that it was clear how big it would be. It took time to develop. In a lot of ways, this is the last time we get to use this advantage. It’s the last time we go into a seminal moment with the luxury of seeing how it played out. Now we know how massive Queer as Folk was to the history of Doctor Who. Before it was just a curiosity about it. If this blog had existed in 2001, the Queer as Folk entry would have still existed, but only because it was where to explore the importance of gay fandom in UK Doctor Who culture. These days we know better – we recognize just how big a breakout it was. The next time we hit something important like this, where its importance is that it’s the Kemble of an eventually larger river, we’re going to miss it, having not yet reached the the point where we can realize its significance.
Queer as Folk is unabashedly about hedonism. One of the monologues in its first episode makes this explicit: “That’s why you keep going out. There’s always some new bloke – some better bloke, waiting just around the corner.” It’s a show about casual sex and the Canal Street scene. But hedonism is nothing terribly new. Indeed, the Grant Morrison-style aesthetic that we’ve just spent the last week and a half critiquing is based on a sort of hedonism. But what’s different about Russell T Davies’s hedonism, and this is going to be an utterly unsurprising observation for anyone who’s been following this blog for a while, is that it is a hedonism based on the material.
Actually, that might be more surprising than I give it credit for, if only because the alternative sounds so odd. What would hedonism be if not material? Isn’t the nature of hedonism material? I mean, what else is one going to seek pleasure in? And yes, this is true. So let me expand – it’s hedonism based on the socially material. Unlike Morrison’s approach, which too often vanishes into an egotistical solipsism, Davies starts from the world and works on the act of drawing pleasure from it. In a very literal sense – Queer as Folk is in part inspired by his near-fatal overdose in 1997, an event he wove into the narrative in the third episode, killing a supporting character in a heroin overdose. As much as Queer as Folk is a celebration of the hedonistic excesses of the Canal Street scene, it’s a wary celebration written by someone who was, in practice, taking his leave of that scene.
The fallout from Phil’s death in episode three provides one of the most interesting aspects of the series. Phil’s funeral (and can I just say how weird it is to write those two words) provides a moment where his mother asks, quite cuttingly, if he’d still be alive if he were straight. And Davies lets his mother win that one. The series admits that it is, in fact, the nature of the gay club scene that killed Phil. This is followed by a deliciously poignant scene where Vince and Stuart go to Phil’s flat to clean out his porn stash so that his mother doesn’t see it. Which, again, has a strange ambivalence to it, tacitly admitting the fact that there is a sense of shame associated with this scene. Vince points out that Phil’s mother knows he’s gay, but as Stuart says in reply, it doesn’t matter how accepting your family is. That’s not the point.
And yet the overall tone of the show still embraces Canal Street. From the ecstatic, bright lights of the opening credits to the angelic choir that backs it to the way in which, for all his magnificent bastard ways, Stuart is made to be the character the audience absolutely adores. He’s an absolute amoral ass, but the show simply does not give the audience leave to hate him and his excesses. The series is realistic about the limitations of the culture it celebrates, but that doesn’t make it any less of a celebration.
And in hindsight, there turned out to be something very powerful about that. The idea that, when everything was weighed up, in a perfectly honest assessment of the world, hedonism might be the best option was, it turned out, terribly interesting. There’s a certain elegance to it as a utopian idea. Davies makes major progress towards this, as I said, by basing it in the idea of material social reality. The hedonism he ultimately embraces comes out of people, in the plural, and out of the relationships between them. Much of Queer as Folk is based on working through the implications and contours of Vince and Stuart’s friendship, and of Stuart’s, for lack of a better word, duty towards Nathan. It’s thoroughly concerned with the way we exist and relate to one another. This isn’t Grant Morrison’s hedonism of declaring yourself to be a rock star unilaterally, but one of finding joy within the world that we have.
So what we have is a collectivist hedonism. Tie this to a notion of sustainability and we start to have something genuinely interesting. Not without its problems – it’s terribly privileged and middle class, but anything coming out of British television is going to be. We can build out from it, certainly, into a more thoroughly and successfully utopian vision. And it’s very much where my moral allegiances fall. I think aesthetic objects that make people happy are the point, and that you don’t really need to extend further than them and their propagation to end up with a system that does everything ethics does. Yeah, you need a few patches like a belief in universal aesthetic judgments, but look, it’s just not that hard a lift.
The more interesting question, for my money at least, is why it’s such a compelling view. The simplest answer, I think, is that it’s startlingly liberating. Hedonism means that it’s OK to be happy. Messages to the contrary are, of course, a primary tool of repressive regimes, along with the accompanying claim that you ought to be happy, or that happiness is somehow a choice. Which it plainly isn’t. Doing things that make you happy is, but being happy isn’t, and there’s a substantive distinction there.
But it’s a powerful message in terms of Doctor Who as well. Vince Tyler is, obviously, a character we need to talk about a bit – a shy and slightly awkward Doctor Who fan. But in many ways what’s most interesting about him is that he’s functional and self-aware and OK with that. There’s a glorious catharsis in the second episode paying off a decade of fan resentment as he gushes about how frustrating it was in the Sylvester McCoy era when Doctor Who was on opposite Coronation Street. Which isn’t just a snarky rejoinder to Michael Grade’s declaration that nobody in Britain watched both shows (a declaration that needs to be taken in context with his delightfully tone deaf claim that Doctor Who fans don’t have girlfriends), but a joyfully fun moment of depicting an odd and slightly perverse sort of fandom without apologies. The fact that Vince likes both Coronation Street and Doctor Who isn’t the joke. The fact that this is why the girl he’s talking to fancies him is almost the joke. But the real joke is that it makes total sense – that the fact that someone like Vince would enjoy Coronation Street and Doctor Who is completely obvious despite the supposed opposition of the two shows.
And there’s something to the way Vince unabashedly loves Doctor Who. Not that he’s without his snarky opinions. Paul McGann doesn’t count and all. But there’s a pure and unbridled joy to it. Which is something that, in 1999, fandom was in serious danger of losing sight of: the fact that if Doctor Who isn’t making you happy then there’s no point to it. And that being made happy by Doctor Who is OK. You don’t need ironic detachment. You can have it if it makes you happy, but you don’t need it. Perhaps the funniest and best scene in the entire series is the cut between some strikingly explicit gay sex and Vince watching the end of Episode One of The Pyramids of Mars and rewinding it to quote along with “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.” As if they’re comparable actions. Because, of course, they are.
That’s Queer as Folk’s moral, if it can be called that. Watching Doctor Who can be just like having anal sex with a fifteen-year-old while drugged out of your mind on dog worming tablets.
I understand people who can’t get behind that about as well as I understand people who don’t like children’s panto J.G. Ballard.