“One measures a circle starting anywhere.”
– Charles Fort, quoted by Alan Moore in From Hell
Before we begin, a touch of housekeeping. The Williams book should be out within the week. I think it has something that will make a fair number of you excited in amidst the extra essays. Also, if you’re in the Cleveland area, I’m giving a pair of talks this week at the Lakewood Public Library. On Wednesday, at 7pm, I’m talking about Wonder Woman, doing “a comic for more or less every decade,” and then on Thursday at 7pm I’m doing one on Doctor Who that will be “a brief history of overthrowing the government.” Both talks are free, there will be books for sale and I’ll be signing, and it’ll be a good time, so if you’re local, please do come out. Now, on to the Olympics.
I think this will be the last time we do a Pop Between Realities that’s about a cultural event as opposed to another television series. Those have been sporadic features, and from time to time I’ve cheated – I did the Three Day Week of 1973 in the same post as Dad’s Army, for instance. But they’ve been a major part of what TARDIS Eruditorum is. So here we have yet another ending for the blog. Another tradition wrapped up. Another step towards the present.
The nature of how I write it these days is much closer to the early days than to most of the blog. I’m not back to writing things the day they post and them thus going up at erratic times, as they once did, but I am writing this about twelve hours before it goes up, trying to finish before bedtime, which is in about four hours because Jill and I are on days this week. I’ve just posted my Kill the Moon review, and have been enjoying the fires it lit. Over on Tumblr today, Jack Graham got an ask about TARDIS Eruditorum, and said some very sweet things, but mentioned a couple of objections, all of which are completely reasonable and insightful. But one managed to get under my skin, as the best criticism, which was his observation that I’m “overly teleological in this attitude towards the development of the show, especially with regards to the dawn of BBC Wales.” Which I absolutely am. Largely because I’m stuck being so. There’s always been a telos to TARDIS Eruditorum. Even when the specifics of its ending point weren’t completely fixed, it was always building to an ending out of necessity: eventually it was going to run out of Doctor Who. And because it’s presented itself as a narrative, that makes for an ending. Sure, I’ll do a Capaldi book eventually, and probably knock out a book whenever there’s an end of an era of Doctor Who, because I like writing about the series and the money’s good. But we’re still coming up on the end. Everything else will really just be appendices at that point.
So with the Olympics I am forced to establish something very much like the present moment. Not least because of the opening ceremony, which was in so many ways a straight up attempt to answer the question “what is the positive vision of Britain today.” This is, necessarily, not going to make Jack particularly happy. Indeed, one of my favorite comments Jack ever left on my blog was back in 2012, right after the opening ceremony, when I opened my post by linking an appeal from a friend who was having trouble paying medical bills, and started with a sentence to the effect of “Wasn’t that bit of the opening ceremony where Mary Poppins fought Voldemort in defense of the NHS great?” And Jack, being Jack, replied quoting that sentence and just saying: “No.” Which makes his position on such things clear.
And, of course, he’s right. The Olympics are a vile spectacle. Corporate greed given special laws to facilitate their profits at the expense of public funds, followed by an extended exercise in nationalism with deeply disturbing militaristic aspects such as the installation of fucking missile batteries on the top of council homes just in case they needed to shoot a plane out of the sky or something, because obviously nothing goes wrong if you shoot a plane out of the sky over a major metropolitan area. Ooh, and the helicopter-based snipers! Those were great too. When the best thing you can say about the IOC is “at least they’re not FIFA,” you’re not dealing with one of the greatest organizations on the planet.
Given the banal horrors of the Olympics, its opening ceremony, a clearly gratuitous use of public funds directed by Danny Boyle, is indeed an act of some depravity. It is a thing that should not be. An ugly travesty. And certainly it’s easy to laugh at it. I think, in my researching it, my favorite relic to come out of it is Frank Cottrell Boyce’s almost beautifully naive and masturbatory “A Dangerous Conversation
,” a self-evidently doomed effort to influence the Olympic Legacy in a way that somehow redeemed the fact that the wrap while the stadium was being constructed was sponsored by Dow Chemicals, who acquired Union Carbide, the people responsible for Bhopal, which you may remember from a recent Last War in Albion
with a horrific picture of a dead baby.
Boyce, of course, is writing the tenth episode of Season Eight, “In the Forests of the Night,” which might have a Blake connection of note, or might just, like the opening ceremony, open with Parry’s setting of Blake’s “Jerusalem” without coming anywhere close to earning the weird and surreal power of that hymn. “Jerusalem” shares its title with Alan Moore’s forthcoming novel, edited by Steve Moore prior to his death in March of 2014. Steve Moore, tacitly invoked by Season Eight with the canonization of Absalom Daak, and more esoterically invoked with the strange lunar magical working of Kill the Moon, which owes a debt to his own “Spider God.” Steve Moore was born and died in a house on Shooter’s Hill, one of the locations of the Olympic missile batteries. Perhaps somewhere in this web of overlaying signifiers there is some way out – some magic trick to redeem the world. That would be the psychochronographic way. Find a point where a number of interesting cultural threads intersect and trace your way out from it until you’ve mapped some sort of psychic territory, and in doing so remap the world itself.
More likely not.
And yet at one key moment in the ceremony, there is a wheezing, groaning sound known to bring hope to all who hear it. (In fact there was to be a sequence in amidst the popular culture celebration addressing Doctor Who, but it got cut for timing reasons.) This, at least, provides some shred of a redemptive reading, if only a magical one.
But the truth is… the whole thing’s easy to like. It’s clear that Boyle and his team were having an absolute blast finding little subversions to put in, such that the opening ceremony presented a slightly off-message Britain. The Queen equated with James Bond. The Olympics emerging out of the dark satanic mills of industry. And, of course, the NHS section really was notable, if only in its brazen decision to connect the grand tradition of British children’s literature to the welfare state in a way that served to make a clear case that the NHS is a fundamental part of British identity. That’s not an idle move. Nor were celebrations of immigration, multi-ethnic Britain, or net neutrality. And there are wonderful little bits like the successful sneaking of a lesbian kiss onto Saudi Arabian television. It’s more than Moffat managed.
It’s an imperfect vision, of course. And an imperfect world. As I said, Jack’s right. The present day is a crap teleology.
And yet somewhere at the edges there scratches an alternative. Something else. Perhaps not the explicit textual promise of the opening ceremony, which is perhaps in the end just another matter of picking what sort of flavor of late capitalist hegemony you want. “Ah, one with a bit more health care and human rights, very well.” Perhaps the one that could never be done, where Danny Boyle walks out into an empty stadium and explains that in his view it would be unethical to spend taxpayer money on bread and circuses when the NHS is underfunded, flicks off the Queen, and walks out. Or better yet, have David Tennant do it in costume.
But in a sense this is what is promised by the opening ceremony. Its celebration of the margins suggests the outsider approach is somehow a part of it. The opening ceremony of ultimate nihilism is there implicit in the knowledge that Boyle could have gone further. That his subversion was necessarily inadequate, hopelessly corrupted by the corporatist orgy in which it was enmeshed, and that whatever he did, there was always more he could have done in support of his own visible ideological preferences. Boyle suggested that the true vision of Britain is its freaks, its oddities, and its radicals.
It will not escape attention that this is, in many ways, the central theme of TARDIS Eruditorum. For all we’ve talked about it, the teleology of its end is not its biggest historical error. Rather, it is the nature of its beginning – an arbitrary Saturday in November of 1963. History did not begin then. Nothing of what appeared on that day is anything other than the teleology of everything that came before it. We’ve alluded to this past from time to time: Dan Dare, Quatermass, the War, of course. A tradition of British children’s literature that itself drew from the old lore of the Isles, and specifically the imagery of faerie, and of portals to faerie – cracks in the skin of the world that connect the everyday to the impossible and wondrous. A nation whose central, original myth is one of the juxtaposition of the strange and the mundane. A mandate of public service that became a deep-seated origin myth of the BBC, demanding that it speak for the whole of Britain, every part of it, and not just the institutional structures of power. This is a fundamental engine of British culture – a key part of why punk and glam and psychedelia took off. Because Top of the Pops had to remain impartial, which meant an ethos of showing anything popular, no matter how strange.
And then with Doctor Who, a series about portals to faerie and collage that came at exactly the right moment to digest the revolutionary impulses of the 1960s and let them become a fundamental part of its identity. An old man who acts like an anarchist schoolboy. Starchildren to represent the future our youth might have. The best of British values presented in the form of ordinary people. Like anything, it’s hopelessly compromised from the get-go. The tradition it hails from is also the tradition of empire, Britain’s great cultural sin. It never transcends being made by an establishment organization that sets absolute limits on how radical it can be. And yet for more than fifty years now it has stubbornly carried its torch and been the place where the BBC pays its debt to the great British tradition of respect for the margins. And for the past three, I’ve been telling the story of what that debt has meant, and of what those margins contain.
And perhaps, for me, it’s simply that the sins matter less. I am, in the end, American. I’m not naive enough to believe that the UK is some magical utopian paradise. But it’s not here, and so it’s a useful tool. I do not want to salvage anything from my own society. I am too angry at it. Too furious at its failures and its unwillingness and inability to address them. Too scarred by the way those failures have hit my life, and too acutely aware of the near-misses. I do not want to be an American. Not in 2014. And so the UK serves as a useful alternative. Something close enough that I can connect to it, but far enough away to allow me to be a stranger in my own country.
Do I valorize it against the grain of reality? Of course. But it’s still useful. Whatever else might be said of Britain, it’s true that there is this myth. The portal to faerie. This idea that the impossible and wondrous might actually be a part of the world. This idea that we could be stranger and more beautiful.
This possibility of transmutation. That lead might somehow be turned to gold.
At the heart of my doomed teleology is this notion of “social progress.” Is it simply that the arc of the universe bends towards justice? If so, it is a curve too long, and that too many have fallen off of. Perhaps things are better now than they once were, but there are too many abysses to gaze into for us to treat the present moment as utopia, or even as a clear bridge to it. And yet the possibility of it is, as we have so often noted, the secret of alchemy.
It lurks there, at the edges of the world, just barely visible through the cracks in its skin. Some future that is not death or extinction. A story that really can go on forever.
Here’s the truth of this project’s teleology. It reaches to the present moment because there is nowhere else to reach. Because the only material social progress that ever really existed was simply the march of time – the steady tick of the clock that brings the future to bear. Progress towards what is irrelevant. Oblivion or survival, it’s all the same to Lord Time. And as the Eruditorum comes up upon the present moment, it delivers its final teleology and the last shred of hope to be found. It is not the present that we are building to any more than it’s November 23rd, 1963 that we’re building from. No. It is everything after that. The forever into which the story unspools.