|Reach out and touch faith.|
And so look, I’m just going to be flat-out cutting and nasty to a segment of the world here. And I’ll admit, I’m doing this in part for personal reasons, because the same “it doesn’t make sense” arguments that are raised about these stories are trotted out for large swaths of postmodern theory and philosophy that are kind of important to me and my life, and they’re used to marginalize my discipline in ways that are directly responsible for why there are no jobs in my field and I’m living in my parents’ basement. So I take this “it doesn’t make sense” argument a little personally, and in that spirit, I’d like to point out that the argument is not “it doesn’t make sense” but rather “I’m too thick to understand it.” It’s just that in a handful of cases – television and the humanities mainly – one’s inability to understand something is somehow the fault of the people who do understand it. Curiously, this logic does not apply to, say, quantum physics. Though increasingly it does seem to apply to climate change and evolution.
In light of this it is worth looking to the end of the story, with Ace’s assertion that she should have blown Gabriel Chase up instead of burning it down. This is perfect. Ace rejects arson, an approach that leaves a physical remnant – a Ghost Light of the mansion – in favor of explosion, an approach that would have blasted Gabriel Chase outwards, laying waste to the very notion of its identity as a fixed and certain point in space. Note also that the Doctor’s response, “Wicked,” is not merely a reiteration of Ace’s own slang but a reiteration of what Mrs. Pritchard accuses Gwendolyn of being when she begins to reject the constructed reality of Josiah’s household in favor of the truth about who her mother is, “wicked” being, in other words, a synonym for the rejection of illusion in favor of material practicality.
But it’s not right to suggest that Evil of the Daleks provides an origin for this story’s viewpoints. Ghost Light isn’t just a reiteration of 1967’s themes. It’s a return to them after a significant and substantial departure imposed by the implications of The War Games. The fact that the program drifted away from the unfettered mercury of the Troughton era and here returns to it full force is distinct from its development. Negating the negation of the mercury is distinct from mercury itself. Even the rooting of the program in mercury is fluid and changing, shifting endlessly.
The other major antecedent is, of course, 100,000 BC. Both stories, after all, feature cave men who worship overtly solar figures. Light is a reiteration of Orb. And so the very starting point of the series – its first story – is made suspicious. Light, a dangerous figure because he represents absolute and unchanging stasis – symbolically reflects the actual starting point of the series. Of course, the specific part of that story it reflects is the one nobody talks about – the lost back three quarters of the opener. (Heck, I separated it off from the first episode in covering it.)
If we discard the lens, however, we can entertain the possibility of another structure for history. The poststructuralist thinkers Deleuze and Guattari published their book A Thousand Plateaus in 1980, and it was translated into English in 1988, a year before this story. Its introduction introduces the idea of the rhizome, a structure in which hierarchy is abandoned in favor a free motion and play without any set points of singularity. Where in the past Doctor Who has embraced a measure of mercurial anarchy, here it goes further, embracing a rhizomatic structure that denies fixed points entirely, taking a viewpoint of absolute flux – a universe where bandersnatches are as real as bandicoots.
Speaking of evolution, it’s kind of a theme in Ghost Light. But let’s look at the sort of evolution involved. I’m not a huge fan of the theory that Seasons 25 and 26 are better understood in production order than transmission order; they smack to me of an excessive worship of the almost certainly fictitious Cartmel Masterplan, relying on the assumption that there was some logic to the stories of this era that never came to fruition. We’ll deal with the problems of that in a few entries’ time, but for now suffice it to say that I’m largely of the view that Season 26 is best understood in the order it transmitted. (The usual objection with relation to this story, based on the reference to Gabriel Chase in Curse of Fenric, carries little weight. In context, Ace is looking to empathize with Kathleen. It’s just as sensible to read her mention of the house as something she’s using to build up to reassuring her – “but then I went back and I understood what had been going on” before getting interrupted by a haemovore attack as it is to read it as set-up for a future story. Indeed, the line is altogether more affecting if you know anything about the house she’s taking about, i.e. if Fenric post-dates Ghost Light.) That said, the detail that this story was produced immediately after Survival is interesting simply because it means that Doctor Who did two stories in a row, from different writers, about the ideological implications of survival of the fittest.
In Ghost Light, then, these two views are rejected together. In this regard it is perhaps worth noting that Ghost Light is a reworked version of Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow, a story we will eventually return to. As Lungbarrow, it was meant to be set on Gallifrey, and was going to massively retcon large swaths of the Time Lords. Instead, however, we get something more powerful. We are now past the last appearance of a living Gallifrey in the program – its sole future appearance on television is as a dead and posthumous world. This marks, in other words, where Doctor Who ceases to be bound by the teleological processes of the Time Lords.
Jean-Louis Dessalles, in his book Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language, writes: “The second reason for not extrapolating a cultural origin for language from the genealogy of languages lies in the mechanism of linguistic propagation. If a language dies out through lack of speakers, the genealogical branch (a fictitious one, of course) containing all the languages it could have given rise to ‘disappears’ with it. The place of this branch is taken by other branches. If one starts from a pool of 100 languages, the genealogical trees which ramify from them are in fact in competition with each other. Even with a constant stock of 100 languages, it is extremely unlikely that all of the original hundred will continue for all time to have descendants. Given a long enough time, the random outcomes of successful filiations will mean that all languages eventually have the same ancestor. If we invert the reasoning, the fact that it might be possible to rediscover a mother language, in the sense of an ancestor of all the languages spoken nowadays, would not prove that such a language was the only one spoken in its day. In other words, the hypothesis of the mother language is perfectly compatible with the fact that there may always have been a considerable number of different languages spoken simultaneously on the Earth. If this is so, the argument for a mother language loses all validity and cannot lead to any conclusion about the cultural invention of language.”
The first of the two major antecedents Ghost Light references is, of course, Evil of the Daleks, the last story to feature a lot of wandering around a Victorian manor. The stories are, thematically, twins. The rejection of the apparent teleology of the Daleks matching Ghost Light’s similar rejection, and both stories treating humanity as a force that undermines absolutes. Ghost Light, by and large, marks a return to the full anarchic mercury of the Troughton era. The associative logic that drives it and its rejection of the very notion of a “final end” provides compelling symmetry. (Indeed, in original drafts of Evil of the Daleks there was to be a Neanderthal in that mansion as well.)
The lens, as a geometric shape, is formed by the intersection of two arcs. Similarly, the evolutionary/historical lens formed by teleology is bounded by two arcs. The first, as we see, is the arc of history protected by the Time Lords. The second is the arc of evolution, which, as Miles and Wood point out in a couple of essays through About Time, is clearly Lamarckian in conception, encompassing not just a biological process of gradual transformation but a clear bias across multiple species and contexts to become as much like white British society as possible (a factor explained by the fact that the guardians of the arc of history are, in fact, basically white British men, thus that the social experiences transmitted through Lamarckian means are firmly based around this view).
Ghost Light, pointedly, never tries to disentangle the evolutionary and historical arcs. In this regard it is more than willing to remain in the realm of Lamarckism. Instead he takes a different route, allowing for the continuing intersection of evolution and history, but rejecting the neatness of an arc. The key is the way in which he exposes the gaps in Light’s catalogue. The animals he lists are mythic ones: dragons, gryphons, basilisks, and bandersnatches. In other words, Light’s catalogue is incomplete because it fails to account for imaginary creatures.
One of the crucial components of the neoliberal agenda is the fact that it is able to position itself as a logical endpoint of Enlightenment values. In essence, it is a view that suggests that the capitalist-based democracy of the present moment is the teleological endpoint of social development – a viewpoint made chillingly literal by the neoconservative politics of Francis Fukuyama, who posited that we had, in fact, reached the end of history. (Inevitably, this viewpoint became the underlying assumption for a new flavor of western imperialism under the euphemism “nation building.”) This view is to some extent implicit in all conservative movements – the opposition to change necessarily indicates a view of history’s cessation.
This positions evolution, in effect, less as a tree than as a lens, with primordial soup at one end and humanity at the other. Primordial soup explodes outwards into a myriad of lifeforms before eventually collapsing back to a single teleological endpoint. Whatever chaos exists in the middle it is wholly and thoroughly bounded by two fixed and rigorous points – master signifiers that anchor the whole of existence. This view is at the heart of the anxiety of homo superior – the old glam-era fantasy of a “further evolved” version of humanity that would eventually supplant us. This is a delightful fantasy – on the one hand it follows logically from the cultural logic of teleological evolution, and on the other it’s a Freudian nightmare.
Crucially, however, this view of evolution is scientifically unsound. Evolution is not a value judgment, but a contingent process of adaptations to specific circumstances. It is manifestly not working towards some eventual goal or bounded by some teleology. An alpaca is just as perfectly adapted to its circumstances as humans are to theirs. And more to the point, the idea that humanity is an endpoint of the evolutionary process is ludicrous without positing a proper apocalypse that renders the world outright uninhabitable.
This doesn’t mean that the Cartmel era abandons references to the past. Far from it, the Cartmel era is as allusive to the past as the show has ever been. What is abandoned is the Whoniverse – the idea of a set and singular narrative for the Doctor. Ghost Light is heavily indebted to the past of the program, but not in a sense of literally following it as history. Instead it riffs on and transforms the past. Not only does it draw on multiple past sources, with, as we’ll see, two standing out more than others, it interacts with them in ways that fundamentally reshape their standing, denying them fixed primacy.
This same logic applies to evolution. The concept of Mitochondrial Eve is best understood not as the origin of all living people but as the point where all alternative genealogies and alternative paths are closed down. And by treating history as a changing set of viewpoints and ideas we can similarly imagine a Memetic Eve – the cultural worldview from which all present ideas held in the world descend through some associative chain. But this imaginary anchor point of all thought is also best understood as a terminal state that marks the death of other possibilities.
So the acknowledgment of gryphons and bandersnatches signifies that the world works according to the associative logic of fiction. This is interesting. On the one hand, fiction implies an author, a fact which comes perilously close to implying teleology. Except the Doctor doesn’t suggest that the world is any particular work of fiction. Rather he suggests a world in which fictional association governs things, but not one in which there is any organizing teleology. Indeed, his entire point in raising the bandersnatches was to point out that the absolute fixity he represented wasn’t true, and that the universe was in practice governed by a logic of free play.
In this regard evolution mirrors the general arc of history well. In practice history, like evolution, is a messy and contingent process. Inevitably we are drawn to the fantasy of the present moment as a teleological endpoint to history, as though our current understanding of the world is the final one that will ever be developed. This is a lie based on nothing so much as our inability to imagine a point past our own deaths. In fact history will advance, our present society and civilization will fall, and new forms and visions will emerge.
The key implication of this stems from the fact that the logic of fiction is associative. This is where the people who fail to understand this story run aground. The story holds together not because every step of what’s going on is well-explained, but because all the parts of this story go together according to an associative logic. Every part of this is, at the end of the day, clearly part of the same story. The story has such coherent themes and iconography that it can get away with being hazy on some of the plot details. Everything looks like it should fit together, and so the question of precisely how it fits together is largely irrelevant, or, at the very least, short-circuited.
And so it is inevitable that in the venomously anti-Thatcher Cartmel era Doctor Who would eventually round on its own turn towards teleological progress. But it’s worth some careful parsing in terms of how this is accomplished. Light, Reverend Matthews, and Josiah are all set against each other in the story, but in practice all of them are wrong for the same reason. Light and Matthews oppose change wholesale, while Josiah posits himself as the end of the evolutionary-historical process. In each case there is an attempt to impose teleology upon the world.
But here we’re dealing with a subtler issue. Teleological evolution, after all, does not assert that humans, by virtue of being more highly evolved, ought casually slaughter every other species on the planet. Indeed, teleological evolution is perfectly compatible with the ecological movement – even, arguably, well-suited to it, with humans being positioned as, by virtue of their superiority, having a noble duty to preserve the planet for the sake of the lesser species. The white man’s burden redux. Rather, teleological evolution posits humanity as the end goal of evolution.
Doctor Who, of course, has been endorsing the teleological view for some time. In historical terms, at least, it’s been the norm since the Pertwee era, and implicitly since The War Games. Since the Time Lords were introduced, at least, the program has assumed the existence of an arc of history that is guarded by the Time Lords, with the Doctor frequently cast as their agent. This brings us around to a bit of a dirty secret of the program over the preceding twenty years of it – for all the mercurial anarchism in the program’s roots, starting with the Pertwee era the program made a hard turn towards Enlightenment liberalism. The mercurial anarchism has haunted the program, serving as a literal ghost light casting its own set of shadows over things. But the official text has been a teleological view of history based on essentially Enlightenment principles.
For cataloging purposes, paragraphs in this entry have been re-indexed alphabetically by the third word of the fourth sentence, with the alphabet being sorted by order of appearance in Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” (i.e. T, W, A, S, B, R, I, L, G, N, D, S, H, Y, etc). Letters not in “Jabberwocky” are simply ignored, but punctuation is treated as a letter of the alphabet. Paragraphs with fewer than four sentences are instead alphabetized working backwards from the end of the paragraph, a mechanism also used as a secondary sort among paragraphs with identical third words in their fourth sentences. Further editing took place after this cataloging, however, and the paragraph ordering was not update to account for this.
This Dessalles quote echoes strongly with the themes of the episode, down to the detail of imagining fictitious genealogical branches of equal philosophical magnitude to what exists. The fixed origin – the supposed Proto-World language is not the original point of language, but the death of it – the language that forecloses all other possibilities. The fixed origin is not the beginning, but just as much the telos at the other end of the lens.
The homo superior fantasy is central to Ghost Light, with Josiah Smith serving as a version of the homo superior that is tied not to the modern aesthetic but to the Victorian aesthetic and discourse from which evolution sprung. Platt plugs the image of homo superior into the rhetoric of empire, pairing Smith with yet another iteration of Captain Cook and posing an existential threat to the British Empire, recast in their vision as just another beast in the wide middle of the evolutionary lens, the Crowned Saxe-Coburg.
As I’ve noted, I try to avoid harping on the ideas of my Mind Robber entry excessively. But there is no way to avoid it here – the reason that Light’s embrace of a teleological view of history is wrong is because of the existence of imaginary creatures. In a story that tacitly involves rolling back the influence of the Time Lords on the program, it is difficult to approach this within our larger interpretation of the program as anything other than a return to the pre-War Games alchemical mode, with the Doctor firmly back in his role as the expat Master of the Land of Fiction.
This judgment – tacitly based on the equation of “fittest” with “best” – is inexorably linked, as Graham points out, to the logic of capitalism whereby the richest people are the mythical “job creators” without whom the rest of the economy could not possibly function and where the accumulation of wealth is a moral good in and of itself. At its crassest level this turns into straightforward social Darwinism, but as usually considered social Darwinism puts most of its emphasis on the “survival” notion, focusing more on the notion of what dies out than on what exists. This thread, at least, we’ll pick up on Monday.
Crucially, the Doctor does not just reject the teleological end of the lens. This is the key thing about his character – the fact that his origins are perpetually unknown. The introduction of the Time Lords in The War Games didn’t just begin the move towards a western liberal arc of history; it also fixed the origin of the Doctor, creating a fixed point on the other end of the lens. But the Cartmel era’s opposition to fixed teleologies extends to unsettling the fixed origins of the character. Not just in its abandonment of Gallifrey and the Time Lords as active presences in the narrative, but in its consistent and at times borderline self-contradictory accounts of the Doctor’s origins.
Ghost Light is first and foremost interesting as the first Doctor Who story to begin to polarize people over the question of whether the story makes sense. This is a difficulty that continues through to the Moffat era, and there’s really no way to sort it out that ends up being nice to the people raising this criticism, so let’s just be done with it. It’s blatantly the case that a large number of people, including, for both Ghost Light and the Moffat era, children, do, in fact, understand the stories. The broad claim that these things “do not make sense” is empirically testable. Clearly lots of people understand them. Furthermore, their understandings are relatively compatible – it’s not that they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that they understand something that they don’t. The people who understand these things are capable of talking to each other about the stories.
The linear form of this post still moved in circles, wandering about on its individual lines of flight. But the act of trying to reorder it according to a rigid (if willfully absurd) structure, ironically, makes it more rhizomatic. Now it lacks a clear starting point, since I excluded the traditional “It’s October 4th, 1989. Black Box are at number one with “Ride on Time,” a song that hung to number one for two weeks before Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers unseat them with “That’s What I Like.” Milli Vanilli, Cher, Erasure and Billy Joel also chart – an interesting quartet giving the themes of this story. Milli Vanilli, by their nature, challenge the nature of a fixed point, their name a signifier for an anti-band, a pair of people who are manifestly not involved in their own music. Erasure, meanwhile, imply the themes of reiteration and the loss of fixed meaning on their own. As for Cher, we have “If I Could Turn Back Time,” while Billy Joel is in with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a pair of songs that are actively about destabilizing the notion of a fixed and explicable history” paragraph, and a clear ending point, with the themes of the entry simply reiterating and morphing forward and backward over the course of the entry. (The summary of the news is also missing, but for the record, the Dalai Lama wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party discards communism in favor of plain old socialism, and the Friday the 13th mini-crash takes place as the Dow Jones shreds 7%.)
This story is, for all of its philosophy, remains aggressively material. The obvious thing to point to is the bafflingly criticized “white kids firebombed it” moment. This is viewed, apparently, as heavy-handed. Because, you know, racist murder isn’t a thing that happens or anything. But even beyond this, the story does the McCoy era’s usual leaps between the material and the epic. This is one of the major and most interesting ways in which McCoy’s Doctor is portrayed as alien. He is, ironically, the most humanly grounded Doctor the series has had to date. But he’s made alien because he seems to have no sense of a distinction between the mundane and the transcendent, treating bus stations and tyranny as similar and directly comparable objects, and in doing so connecting the postmodernist philosophy of the story and its searing critiques of the British Empire with the material street politics of the late 80s.
In other words, the terrifying fixity of things is found lurking under the visible veneer of the first story. This is the inverse of how things are presented as being within this story, where beneath the veneer of fixed ideology is a churning morass of horror. The horror, however, stems from the basic fact that the fixity is a lie. The constant flux is only horror if you go in expecting the absolute pinnings of Enlightenment liberal identity.
Jack Graham has, at his delightful blog Shabogan Graffiti, recently posted his own phenomenal piece on Ghost Light that spells this out in detail, but there’s a fairly straightforward connection between the scientific rhetoric of evolution and capitalism. Or, perhaps more accurately, there’s a connection between evolution as depicted in much of popular culture and capitalism. But there’s a key distinction to be made here between evolution as it actually exists and what we might call teleological evolution. Teleological evolution posits, in effect, that the apex predator is the best species. Implicit in this is the assumption that humans are the “most highly evolved” species on the planet, treating all other forms of life as inferior branches of the evolutionary tree.