|Oh, and to top it off, the Monoids are dark skinned. So we|
have the dark-skinned savage of a monster kidnapping
the cute white girl. Nothing amiss here. No sir.
It’s March 5, 1966. Boots continue to be made for walking. The Walker Brothers will, come March 17th, discuss how the sun ain’t gonna shine no more. This seems flatly contradicted by the episode of Doctor Who that airs five days earlier, in which the sun expands and burns the Earth to cinders. Thankfully, that takes place in the far future. In 1966 itself, these weeks are fairly tame, presenting a nice tableau of what we might call stories about the British character. The Jules Rimet trophy for the World Cup is stolen, and dug up a week later by a dog named Pickles. The Archbishop of Canterbury courts controversy for having the gall to sit down and talk to the Pope. And Ronnie Kray, one of the two Kray Twins who basically run organized crime in London, commits the murder he’ll finally be sent away for when he walks into the Blind Beggar pub and shoots George Cornell in the head, causing a record of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine No More” to skip endlessly on the word “anymore.” Kray would manage to get away with this for three years by virtue of the fact that nobody was actually stupid enough to testify against a man who walked into pubs and shot people dead, this being a sort of tautological behavior. If you have the insane confidence needed to shoot someone in the head in front of numerous witnesses because you believe yourself to be untouchable, you also have the insane confidence needed to actually be untouchable. At least for a while.
It’s not that these are dark days. They’re not. It’s that they’re deeply schizoid days, in which the sort of rampant corruption needed to have the Kray twins exists side by side with the charming nationalistic glee of Pickles the trophy-finding dog.
“Deeply schizoid” is an apt phrase, really, for talking about the end of John Wiles’s tenure producing Doctor Who, which happens with this episode. He was only on board for four stories, though of course, one of them was rather long, and yet it seems difficult to overstate his importance to the show. Even if, under him, the ludicrous failure to resolve The Massacre well (a problem that really is constrained entirely to the last ten minutes of the story, as the rest of it is phenomenal) and thus failed to quite resolve the ongoing plot arc of the Doctor’s inadequacy, the fact of the matter is that, on quality, The Myth Makers, The Daleks Master Plan, and The Massacre have been among the best Doctor Who stories we’ve seen. And now we have his finale, and the lone story of his tenure to be complete in the archives.
Oddly, though, The Ark is the first and only time under John Wiles that we’ll get something that feels more or less like a normal Doctor Who story. It’s actually been six months since we last had a story in which the Doctor and company arrive on an alien world and have to learn the rules and situation of that world, as opposed to a historical or a big story about Daleks, who are great villains, but require no learning or exploration from the Doctor. The introduction of Daleks pretty much brings to a conclusion any speculation as to what the story might be or what’s going on.
Watching the opening of The Ark, then, one thing that is very clear is how much faster and more confident the program is in its third year. For all the complaints about the pacing on The Ark, it’s very difficult not to notice that its first two episodes are basically The Sensorites done in 1/3 the time. Under Wiles, the show has learned to get to the point and tell a story. It will get better (the pacing of Doctor Who basically accelerates constantly over the years, and frankly, this is almost always a good thing), but Wiles has done a lot to tighten the storytelling.
The biggest loss to make up for this is, frankly, not that big a loss to anyone over the age of about ten – the show is much less didactically educational than it used to be. As tedious as the opening of The Ark in which Dodo walks around the jungle identifying animals is, just imagine if this had been a Season 1 story, in which case biological features of the animals would have been crucial to the resolution. Instead we get a remarkably savvy and clever sequence that fools us into thinking that we’re looking at a stock footage elephant (complete with a shot-reverse-shot cut to Dodo’s face that seems designed to hide the lack of a real elephant) only to have the TARDIS crew stride up and touch the elephant. And honestly, that’s better than an educational digression about elephants.
Similarly, even though it takes over half an episode to get the Doctor to the plot, the plot starts moving before that. We don’t spend the entire first episode on a mystery about where the TARDIS has landed this time. Nor, in the second episode, is the race to find a cure for the outbreak of disease on the Ark delayed by a runaround through the sewers. Instead, things happen with considerable frequency. So much so that, two episodes in, it looks as though we may have watched a two-parter and be on our way out of the story.
Then something interesting happens. The Doctor, Dodo, and Steven are driven off to the TARDIS (this is one of my favorite details of this story, by the way – the little golf carts that are used to transport people around the Ark, giving it a sense of scale.) The golf cart drives off, we watch the TARDIS dematerialize, and then… it reappears.
And it’s here that The Ark simultaneously reaches its maximum genius and runs smack into what is, in the end, the biggest problem I have with John Wiles’s tenure on the show. See, in episodes 1 and 2 of The Ark, in the background, there was a plot going on about the Monoids. Basically, the Monoids are tall aliens played by men with ping pong balls in their mouths painted like eyes, and weird Beatle wigs on top of their costumes. We’re not told a lot about them – they were refugees who came to Earth when their own world was dying, and are valued as a servant class. They seem friendly enough throughout the first two episodes. There are a couple of things that are unsettling – they’re clearly second-class citizens. For instance, when the TARDIS crew is on trial for his role in spreading the plague across The Ark, the trial only gets really serious when a human dies of the plague, when previously it had just been Monoids. And there’s a really uncomfortable scene where the Monoids have a funeral procession for one of the plague victims, and Dodo says they look like savages.
All of which is remarkably subtle set-up for the episode 2 cliffhanger, in which the statue that the humans were building, which we were told would take 700 years to build, is now complete. Oh, and it’s a statue of a Monoid.
And unfortunately, after 22 episodes of incredibly high quality, which left me expecting to watch The Ark and write up a nice retrospective on John Wiles that talked about him as an overlooked creative genius in the history of Doctor Who, we got the two episodes that made me completely re-evaluate his entire tenure.
I mean, not that he’s talentless. The last two episodes of The Ark are great to watch. That’s not the problem. The problem is… well, OK. The usual criticism of The Ark’s latter half is that the Monoids, once they’re in charge and oppressing the humans, are utterly stupid villains who do things like inadvertently explain their whole plan, out loud, to the humans. And they have a Security Kitchen (though to be fair, eventually when the show comes up with ideas like a kitchen/prison, we decide it’s brilliant. To my mind, if you hate the Security Kitchen, you’d better give up immediately on the Yeti, The Axons, Erato, The Eternals, Varos, The Candyman, Cassandra, The Adipose, and the Star Whale too).
Except here’s the thing… I don’t think it’s poor plotting that makes the Monoids stupid. I think, actually, they’re supposed to be stupid. I think that’s completely deliberate. Because this story is a piece of colonialist, imperialist, and downright mean-spirited crap.
Let’s look carefully at the Monoids again. Refugees who arrived in a world otherwise full of white British people and were dutiful servants. Who are “savages” (or so says Dodo). Who can’t even talk in the first two episodes. Does this sound remotely familiar to you? Perhaps if we threw in some poetry.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
That’s Rudyard Kipling, by the way.
I mean, by any modern standards, the Monoids should be sympathetic. Treated like servants and second class citizens, they only rise up, we are told, because of a genetic defect that makes the humans docile and unfit to lead. And even then, they are only capable of rising up because the humans are foolish enough to arm them and give them the ability to talk. In a modern Doctor Who story, we’d want to see the Doctor on their side – fighting for their independence. Surely treating an entire race as a class of servant-like savages is wrong.
Except it’s not, in this story. The Monoids rise up and are moustache-twirling villains. And their tendency to give away their plans to anyone around them? Well, I don’t want to glorify it with an entire blog entry, but we can jump to another show on the BBC to get a sense of what was going on there. The Monoids are deliberately minstrel characters. They’re incompetent because the whole point is that savages like them can never actually run a country, and we’d be fools to turn one over to them.
In fact, even being nice to them – giving them more power like speech and weapons – is wrong. The Monoids deserve to be a race of servants, because that’s all that savages like them are good for. And when, at the end of the story, the humans are ordered to make peace with the Monoids, one does not sense that it will be a peace of equals, but rather the return of the Monoids to being a well-treated servant class.
And it’s just sickening. It’s a sickening, vile piece of racism and neo-colonialism that, while not wholly out of step with its times, was reactionary and nasty in 1966, and is only worse in 2011.
But the real problem is that once you see it, you see what was going on in the rest of John Wiles’s tenure. It starts with a seemingly inoccuous detail – that the Monoids have Beatles haircuts. The Beatles, of course, are the icon of youth culture. It’s very, very difficult to come up with a reading of the decision to make the irredeemable savages have Beatles haircuts as anything other than a savage condemnation of youth culture. Especially when combined with the decision to write Vicki out of the show unceremoniously, and the near-decision to actually kill her. Or, for that matter, the decision to replace Vicki, our Scouse revolutionary, with the bumbling and naive idiocy of Dodo – a jaw-droppingly harsh reconsideration of how to portray youth culture. Much is made of the fact that Dodo is a (poor) attempt to add a contemporary London girl to the cast, but not nearly as much is made of the fact that she’s played as stupid comic relief. She’s not an icon of youth culture like Vicki. She’s a vicious condemnation of contemporary youth. She’s an explicit comment that they’re stupid, ignorant, and worthless.
And suddenly the running plot of how the Doctor sometimes just has everyone die seems a lot more sinister. The Doctor, who a little over a year ago was a pyromaniacal figure of revolution, is now a force of destruction. Time after time he shows up and people die. Even here, he shows up and just gets people sick and calls the overthrow of the nice British people. And all put together, it’s very difficult – for me, at least, impossible, to get away from the message. Revolution is bad. Youth are stupid. Dark-skinned people are savages who cannot be redeemed. And if you, like the Doctor, side with those people and help them, you will cause untold death and destruction.
For all his skill in making a good program, the fact of the matter is, the 24 episodes produced by John Wiles are mean-spirited, reactionary, and, frankly, in the final analysis, racist. They’re well-made. But ten again, “The White Man’s Burden” is a well-written poem about being a racist imperialist. It doesn’t make it good. And just because Wiles broke new ground in the idea of pushing the Doctor to the limit, it doesn’t mean his tenure was any less of a racist, reactionary mess.
The Ark is fun to watch. But it’s sickening, and by the end, quite frankly, one is glad to see the backside of this regime. The script editor changed over after The Massacre. Now the producer has as well.
Frankly, thank God.
Do you own The Ark on DVD yet? If not, you can buy it from Amazon via this link and make me some money.