Pyramids of London (‘Deep Breath’ 1)
I’ve realised who Strax reminds me of: the policeman from ‘Allo ‘Allo. But not as good. That’s a cheap shot, but I do have a serious point to make.
Strax, you see, is essentially a funny foreigner. You know, with his allegedly hilarious misunderstandings and all that stuff. Moffat evidently imagines that Strax’s misunderstandings are a rich and continuing source of humour, since he stops the plot of ‘Deep Breath’ for a few minutes so that he can (once again) run through all the same Strax jokes he’s already done several hundred times in other episodes. (This, by the way, is another way in which Strax resembles a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo – he is the same joke, repeated endlessly, over and over again, with the laugh demanded – upon recitation of a well-known catchphrase – from an audience supposedly trained via pavlovian technique. If you object to my singling out ‘Allo ‘Allo here then, really, I agree with you. How about we use Little Britain as our example instead?)
Of course, the funny foreigner – with all the imperial contempt and jingoistic chauvinism that is built in to it – is a very old, traditional, endlessly recurring character in British comedy. Shakespeare, for instance, relied upon it heavily, with his nebbishy Welshmen Fluellen and Dr Evans, his amusingly touchy Irishman MacMorris, and his randy preening French vanitycase Dr Caius, etc etc etc. So we can’t be too hard on Moffat here. He is, after all, simply doing (yet again) something very old, venerable and respected, despite it being unfunny and based in national chauvinism. Can’t really blame him, can you?
As I say, however, Strax isn’t as good as the policeman in ‘Allo ‘Allo… because the policeman in ‘Allo ‘Allo (you remember, he used to come in and mispronounce his words – it was terribly amusing) is actually a jab at the English, at the English habit of imagining that, rather than bother to learn foreign languages, all you have to do is speak English at foreigners, but with an attempt at their accent, and in a loud voice, and they’ll get it… because English is the only proper language, and people who don’t speak it are thus functionally the same as the mentally disabled, and everyone knows that people with mental illness just need to try harder.
I don’t mean to attribute attitudes like that to Moffat. But its a shame that he falls back on a comedy trope that is so incredibly dodgy. Though, in fairness, the employment of dodgy foreigner stereotypes (comic or otherwise) is not exactly unknown to pre-Moffat Doctor Who. And Strax isn’t overtly supposed to represent any particular non-British nationality. He’s supposed to be an alien. And here we stumble across another complicating factor: the alien in Doctor Who has always been based on a kind of racial essentialism, a fear of the other, etc etc etc. Strax could arguably be said to be considerably less dodgy than, say, Linx, because he represents a condition of mutual acceptance. He is the other, sure, but the other muddling along amongst us and basically on our side.
But here we run into yet another twist in the story… because this alignment of the other with ‘us’ is worrying in itself. This recurring team – Vastra, Jenny and Strax – worries me. It represents the reconciliation of the antagonist with ‘us’. They don’t just live with humans, they live in Victorian London, and this seems to me to be the most blatant possible way of integrating them into a kind of aggressively middle-class, twee, cutesy, ostensibly lovable, yet aggressive and insular and ressentimental Britishness, a Britishness at its most iconically imperialistic and hierarchical. Victoriana is the heavy drapes and elaborate dresses and cravats and top hats of the middle-classes. Victoriana is the coughing, shivering, gin-swilling street poor as an essential background decoration, a set of tropes to locate us. Victoriana is brown derby-wearing police inspectors (probably called Lestrade) who consult toff private detectives because, being working class, they’re too thick to do their jobs themselves (the implicit goodness and necessity of the police is never questioned in Victoriana – something that wasn’t true amongst common people in actual Victorian London, who often saw the bobbies as incompetents at best, violent spies at worst). Victoriana is empire as backdrop. Queen and country. Big Ben. Smog, gaslight, cobbles, hansom cabs, etc etc etc. This is the milieu that Vastra, Jenny and Strax have assimilated themselves into. Vastra even challenges the bad guys “in the name of the British Empire!” This sort of thing no doubt seems desperately cute to Moffat, and all those people who write those rubbishy Jago & Litefoot audios for Big Finish, but its only our historical amnesia to what the British Empire was that allows this kind of desperate cutesiness to subsist. The subsistence of it, in turn, allows the amnesia. And boy, do we love our symptoms… hence our desire to inflict them on everyone and pull everyone, and everything, into them. The Silurian and the Sontaran, for instance, have joined us in our adorable, pop-Conan-Doyle-inflected national fantasy of a penny dreadful past of wonders and horrors. The horrors are all safely in the past (things we’ve cured now) and the wonders remain as a kind of nostalgic longing for the lost times when, right or wrong, he had confidence and lush gothic cliches galore on our side. Vastra – the representative of a displaced people who are perpetually denied redress and justice (umm… imperialism? colonialism?) – has isolated herself from her people and integrated herself into imperial Britain. She has ceased to be any kind of rebuke to ‘our’ world, or ‘us’. And ‘we’ have become the national gestalt that once lived in the United Kingdom of Sherlock. Strax – the representative of a culture of militarism and conquest – has similarly integrated himself. His imperialist attitudes are turned into cute, amusing misprisions which allow him to sink with ease into the warm slippers of imperial Victoriana. The militarism of the Sontarans is no longer a rebuke to ‘our’ militarism. The Sontaran may not be a threatening other anymore, but he is now no longer, in any sense, a mirror reflecting our own nastier values back at us. He’s not a reflection that attacks. He’s a stooge who safely reminds us of our foibles by being sillier than us, and then puts on the uniform of a servant and takes his place in the pyramid. The good pyramid. ‘Our’ pyramid. The pyramid we all fit into somewhere, nicely and neatly. The pyramid that even the comedy tramps fit into. The pyramid in which the chirpy cockney maid voluntarily calls people “ma’am” and serves them their tea, as an empowered life choice. The pyramid of contextless, gutted, sanitised tropes. This is partly why our representations of the Victorian era are so tropetastic… because tropes slot neatly into each other (hence all the Victoriana crossovers, i.e. Holmes vs Jack the Ripper, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc), arrange themselves into pyramids of perceived cultural weight, and start to resemble a vertiginous but orderly class structure, a sort of naturally-occuring periodic table of the social roles, which is the ideology of Victoriana that we are sold by every bit of culture the tropes come from. This is why ‘actually existing steampunk’ (which ‘Deep Breath’ appropriates in predictable fashion, Moffat having been pulling at this particular thread for some time) is so pernicious. Because the iconography of the high era of industrialisation, imperialism and colonialism is reduced to contextless fetishized commodities, sumptuous archaic kit, and safely de-conflicted social classes. And even the identification of the cogwheel and the top hat with villainy nevertheless makes no apology for the joy we’re supposed to take in the sheen of the 19th century machine.
Of course, once again, we shouldn’t be too hard on Moffat. He’s just doing what lots of people do. He’s just going along. And he’s not doing anything worse than Robert Holmes did in ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’. In fact, he’s better than that. His obligatory Victorian chinese person looks right, according to the big book of stereotypes… but at least he was played by an actual Chinese person. And at least he wasn’t being singled out. At least he was just another brick in the pyramid, another character on the picturesque Quality Street tin that Victorian London has been turned into by our culture industries. That’s what we do now. We don’t do stories about Victorian London in which Chinese people are The Enemy. The sneer at the foreigner has been displaced elsewhere, translated into code. Now, we do stories in which all races and classes, all costumes and styles, all tropes, are brought together, all present and correct, all slotted into place.
Is that so bad? I honestly don’t know. I’m not necessarily arguing that we’re looking at a regress. But I’m pretty sure we’re not looking at progress. And I’m not talking about the paucity of round things on the wall.
August 24, 2014 @ 11:17 am
While I mostly liked the episode, thank you for putting my vague feelings into words. I do find the amusement park version of history we always get on Doctor Who really irritating, but I've never been bothered or able to put my thoughts about it into writing. 'In the name of the British Empire!' God-damn steampunk shite.
And… yeah, the Vastra/Jenny relationship does seem pretty fucking dodgy. I've seen people refer to it as kinky, as if that actually makes things any less creepy. It would be nice if they could go more than two minutes without turning to the screen and shouting LOOK AT US WE'RE MARRIED WE ARE WE'RE LESBIANS AND WE'RE MARRIED.
You're right in your conclusion, too, I think: ahistorical narratives cannot be progressive, they can at best be less bad than other ahistorical narratives.
Soo… I guess this is just a roundabout way of saying that I agree with everything you've written here.
August 24, 2014 @ 11:36 am
Oh, those Victorian tropes are so tiresome. I groaned when I heard we were getting another story set in the Victorian era.
August 24, 2014 @ 11:45 am
August 24, 2014 @ 12:32 pm
And another thing that makes it mind-meltingly wrong is that Vastra and Jenny (I'm not calling her Madam Vastra unless Jenny gets an indicator of upper-classness too) wouldn't even be able to get married in Victorian England! They'd have to hitch a ride to 2014 in the Tardis, 'cos apparently Queen Victoria didn't even believe lesbianism existed, and male homosexuality was illegal.
Jenny pours the tea because of her accent, of course. Which means she literally gets objectified — treated as an object — in the scene where she has to hold an uncomfortable pose in daft clothes because she makes the room look prettier, or something, while the upper-class woman does the brain-work.
August 24, 2014 @ 2:11 pm
The thing about the Victorian era, though, is that it's where the tropes and structures of adventure fiction originate. I don't know that British adventure fiction can avoid Victoriana, because at the end of the day British adventure fiction is a genre that only exists to service the propaganda needs of the empire.
August 24, 2014 @ 2:12 pm
Hi Jack, (if that IS your real name?)
I obviously don't agree with almost anything I just read, apart from that London's prominence in the show actually is indicative of class/social elitism, albeit of a different order than the one usually portrayed in the media.
Your 'Strax, you see, is essentially a funny foreigner' argument can surely be applied to absolutely any non-human comedy character in the history of the show? Roy Batty, or Data off of Star Trek, would feel the same if they saw K9's endless moronic behaviour, as it largely stems from his nature as a sentient AI. However, as neither sentient AI or Sontarans actually exist, I think writers should possibly feel free to not mind offending them?
In fact, K9 is worse, because sentient AI WILL exist one day. Hundreds of years from now, a perfectly genial robot man will watch K9, and cry. Cry, cry, cry.
August 24, 2014 @ 3:26 pm
Jack IS my real name.
Well… actually my name is James, but everyone calls me Jack.
So I suppose Jack ISN'T my real name.
August 24, 2014 @ 3:27 pm
Just as all novels are forever doomed to reiterate Cervantes, and all fiction to reiterate Homer, or perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh.
August 24, 2014 @ 3:34 pm
You can support a claim that fiction is bizarrely prone to reiterating Greek thought about the nature of heroism, to be fair.
More broadly, I really do think adventure fiction's basic model of how travel works is inseparable from theories of empire. You can't take empire out of adventure stories any more than you can take a yearning for fascism out of superheroes.
August 24, 2014 @ 3:42 pm
You can't take it out, true, but that doesn't mean you have to assiduously make up the best bedroom for it, serve it a lavish dinner and sit at its feet fanning it with a palm frond.
August 24, 2014 @ 3:51 pm
Sure. I think there's a pretty solid case that Doctor Who serves up as strange and cracked mirror a view of the Victorian era as can be managed while still doing adventure fiction, though. (I'd certainly argue it does a better job than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for instance, which comes infuriatingly close to suggesting that it's all been downhill since the empire ended on a regular basis. Whereas Doctor Who seems pleasantly fixated on queering the hell out of Victoriana, which feels to me like the best you can reasonably hope for from the genre.)
August 24, 2014 @ 3:57 pm
Ooh, I like that. Please elaborate on "queering the hell out of Victoriana". BTW, I wasn't really meaning to single out Moffat or the ep especially. I mean, I think Deep Breath just demonstrated a much bigger trend, that's all. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that Moffat has just injected these problems into a previously pristine artefact.
August 24, 2014 @ 4:20 pm
Well, on a basic level there's the existence of the Paternoster Gang, which seems to me to be an extended joke about the vast spaces offered within the Victoriana Pyramid for queer existence. (I should also note that I suspect the Jenny/Vastra relationship to have a conscious BDSM aspect to it, given Moffat's demonstrated familiarity with that. Certainly Jenny's snark about "pretense" reminded me of any number of lifestyle BDSM couples I've known. Now, of course, the relationship between BDSM and class is a massive and undertheorized one, but again, there's some queering going on there.)
But more broadly, the barbed comment about vegetarianism, the spin of the Dark Satanic Mills wanting to be human, and the conscious decision to move the Doctor through the class spectrum all feel to me like acknowledgments that the Pyramid is built out of nothing but iconography, and is best treated as a playground, an approach that seems to me to drain as much of the ideology from the thing as possible.
Especially, of course, given that Doctor Who does plenty of other things as well. If it were all Victoriana, that would be one thing, but the playground of Victoriana is just one of many things the series can do, and when it gets out of the playground it tends to interrogate adventure fiction in new and interesting ways.
August 24, 2014 @ 6:48 pm
Sounds like queering Victoriana just makes it look more flexible and fun, with loads of space for individual freedom.
I also notice that the barbed comment about vegetarianism took the form of a condescending put-down, and that the Doctor's movement through the class spectrum completely skipped the proletariat, and was an upward movement from tramp to gentleman.
August 24, 2014 @ 7:44 pm
Is Vastra really a demonstration of individual freedom though? I mean, the focus seems to me less on individual freedom and more on the complex nature of her partial assimilation into the society. The veil metaphor in particular.
August 24, 2014 @ 9:06 pm
Your real name is Jack Shabogan.
August 24, 2014 @ 9:09 pm
Victoriana is brown derby-wearing police inspectors (probably called Lestrade)
August 24, 2014 @ 11:42 pm
"getting married" and "being married" aren't necessarily correlated. What's to stop a committed queer couple from self-identifying as married in an oppressive society.
August 25, 2014 @ 3:32 am
Is that character actually called Gregson… because, y'know, I was just joking about Lestrade, but Gregson is actually the name of one of the other Scotland Yard coppers from the Holmes stories.
August 25, 2014 @ 3:33 am
Oh yes, the veil she wears as a judgement. Hmmm. Of course, supposedly partially assimilated people wearing veils is rather a loaded issue these days.
August 25, 2014 @ 3:33 am
Jack Graham is my real name. Really, it is.
August 25, 2014 @ 4:54 am
My thoughts exactly:
"Just because Strax is a Sontaran doesn’t mean he’s not also a comedy ethnic minority sidekick, even (and perhaps especially) if the actor playing him is white…the running joke is that he’s a foreigner from a campily-militaristic empire of swarthy barbarians who tries but often amusingly fails to understand how civilised people do things, and isn’t it just hilarious to dress him as a butler?"
August 25, 2014 @ 2:02 pm
I find little to complain about if I read Vastra's veil as a metaphor for the hijab.
August 28, 2014 @ 2:39 pm
Strax seems played extremely, perhaps mockingly, British? to me. Just put him in a red army coat.
Although this may just be the Terry-Thomas gap working allusional magic.
August 30, 2014 @ 7:02 am
Actually female marriage did exist in Victorian britain, look it up. 🙂