|The Doctor after an encounter with the
Seeds of Death. There is no
innuendo about this, right?
It’s January 25, 1969. Marmalade are still at number one with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but after one week are overtaken by Fleetwood Mac, who are here seen in their early stage, i.e. not the one anyone recognizes as Fleetwood Mac, in that Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks were not yet in the band. From there it’s The Move with Blackberry Way, a bleak and dour song from a band previously known for cheery psychedelia. Welcome to 1969. From there it’s two weeks of Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice, then, for the last week of this story, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” which is apparently a big deal, but I confess I’ve never heard of the song.
In other news, Ian Paisley is arrested for political demonstrations in Ireland and jailed for three months, one of the more radical moments in his long political career, there’s some vandalism of art at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yasser Arafat is elected leader of the PLO, and, ironically, St. Valentine is stricken from the Roman calendar of saints on Valentine’s Day. But perhaps most importantly, The Beatles give their last public performance, an impromptu rooftop concert broken up by the police.
The elegiac feel of this concert mirrors an elegiac feel to The Seeds of Death that has been remarked upon by more than one commentator. This makes sense – especially through the lens of history. This is the last time Troughton appeared in what was by and large his archetypal mode of story – the base under siege. It was the last time Troughton met one of the big monsters. And Troughton’s departure was announced during this story’s filming. The sense of an era coming to an end is unavoidable.
But there’s more that’s elegiac than that. The most elegiac aspect, in fact, seems audacious for the time: space travel is portrayed as an outdated and abandoned technology. Miles and Wood, quite cleverly, relate this to the common news story of the day of train lines running their last service. This is the central cleverness of The Seeds of Death – it takes the hottest and most advanced form of transportation technology of 1969 and treats it like the one that’s going obsolete.
From our post-space vantage, this seems oddly prescient. Even if space rockets were rendered obsolete not by teleporters but by, essentially, their own lack of relevance, the image of an old man in a museum full of rockets mourning the abandonment of space is a crushingly familiar one in 2011 as the US prepares to abandon the Space Shuttle program with no clear plan for a replacement emerging. (Yes, a replacement program exists, but nobody would be so absurd as to call it a certainty that it will ever happen.)
I suspect in many ways that my generation is the last one to really feel this. Certainly when I grew up there was still the sense of space as something that humans were going to figure out. The idea of a Mars colony in my lifetime seemed plausible, and concepts like terraforming seemed important. Individual Shuttle flights were not usually a big deal, but space as a whole was still assumed to be a part of the future. In hindsight this seems silly – it should have been obvious by the time I was born that the Shuttle was an ill-conceived mess that had effectively set the space program back by decades. But more than that, it should have been clear that space travel was not going to be useful without massive technological breakthroughs that showed no signs of coming.
But for whatever reason – perhaps out of the sheer momentum of 1969 (only 13 years ago when I was born – there were still teenagers who remembered the moon landing then) or out of the fact that black holes, wormholes, and other things that might render real, proper interstellar travel possible were trendy, space was not dead when I was born. Nearly 29 years later, however, it seems to compare unfavorably with doornails.
And so there is an oddly prescient power in the image of a discarded future here. Especially given how often Doctor Who in the 60s appears itself to be a discarded future – one overwritten by the rise of portable digital technology and global communications. It’s not just (or even really at all) that the future seen in The Seeds of Death seems more accurate and plausible in 2011 than most 1960s Doctor Who futures. It is that The Seeds of Death is specifically concerned with identifying a portion of its present that would go on to be a discarded future, and, incredibly, it got it right.
More than that, there are numerous ways in which the tone of The Seeds of Death is more on target for the future than much of what we’ve seen. Even The Enemy of the World, the Troughton story most immediately concerned with providing a glimpse of a near-future world (as opposed to The Invasion, which, while clearly near-futuristic, takes as one of its central premises that no essential changes in the day-to-day life of people have occurred), does not seem quite as on-target. The tone of that story gestures towards a world government, which is another fast-receding bit of futurism. (And while we’re talking about Enemy of the World again, can I just ask why the official Doctor Who Facebook page describes Salamander as Castro-esque? The only similarity, surely, is that both are Hispanic and viewed as bad guys.)
The Seeds of Death, on the other hand, largely presents T-Mat as a business venture. One does not get the sense that T-Mat is a government operation so much as that it’s a mutli-national company, possibly with lots of government contracts. This is a world where mass starvation happens because a company gets stuck with some shipping delays. This seems almost inevitably to be a much more believable future.
But look further and the underlying strangeness starts to become a bit clearer. We’re clearly supposed to sympathize with Professor Eldred when he sighs that the moon was “far enough” for humanity, and to mourn the lost future of space. But that requires that we figure out which ideology of space is being mourned. Which brings us back to Wednesday’s post, and to the job of responding to some of the points raised in comments. First of all there is Jesse Walker’s excellent point that I’m acting as though there was only one mode of liberalism in the 1960s.
Mr. Walker is, of course, absolutely correct that liberalism cannot be collapsed into the radical tradition of the 1960s. After all, in America at least, that tradition turned viciously on LBJ for his failings in Vietnam, forcing him out of contention for the 1968 Democratic nomination. The LBJ/JFK tradition of liberalism did exist. And the space program owed huge debts to it. But that doesn’t in any real way undercut my observations about the space program as a military proxy program. Because New Frontier liberalism was essentially just a kinder, gentler militarism. Although to a later generation of American liberals the ousting of the most effective anti-poverty President since FDR over the Vietnam War stings, the fact of the matter is that it is not as though the Vietnam War was an anomalous datapoint in the Johnson Presidency. His vision of what America was held that American ingenuity and spirit provided the humane counter-narrative to the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union, and that America was obliged to spend its military might spreading these cultural values.
But equally crucially, this flavor of New Frontier liberalism was, as Mr. Walker points out, the underpinning of Star Trek. Which brings me to the other point to which some readers objected, my claim that Star Trek represented a sort of deferred fantasy of American imperialism, which several people pointed out seemed to ignore things like manifest destiny.
Well, no. I mean, far be it from me to ignore the systematic destruction of numerous cultures and the wholesale genocides committed by Americans in the Indian Wars – genocides that were unsuccessful more because America is appallingly ADD about such things than because there was some redemptive “nice side” to our massacres. My point isn’t that American history was lacking in chilling historical atrocities. It’s just that there’s more than one kind of imperialist tendencies. The one that was on display in Manifest Destiny was primarily a local, backyard land grab – “That stuff you have. We’ll be taking it now.” Every country goes through that, generally to their shame.
But that’s not the sort of imperialism on display in Star Trek. Nor is it the type of imperialism most associated with Britain, whose imperialist tendencies had a bizarre moral foundation behind them. Take a tour of Rudyard Kipling and chill at something like “The White Man’s Burden” and you can see the bizarre moral logic of British imperialism, which was founded not on the nationalistic desire for power but on a sort of messianic altruism.
In practice, of course, the British Empire was based on economic exploitation as well. But the fantasy of the British Empire – which was at least as important as the actual empire (upon which the sun eventually did set, whereas the fantasy lives on) – was about bringing culture to the savages. The nationalism came in the form of the genuine belief that British culture was superior to all others and thus the culture most needed by the savages.
This is what Star Trek was about, and it’s what New Frontier liberalism was about. It’s also what the American nationalist myth about rescuing Britain in World War II (despite the fact that Britain had already successfully repelled the German attack by the time the US entered the war, and Germany had moved on to Russia) is about – the idea that following World War II, since we’d saved Britain and Europe, we had supplanted them and it was our turn to form a cultural empire across the world. Or, as that started to run aground into the reality of the Cold War, across the stars.
What’s oddly dissonant about The Seeds of Death, then, is that Eldred is visibly mourning for this vision of space. Look closely at what it is he regrets. He wants to explore Space. He’s positioned, in other words, as a version of the pith-helmeted Victorian explorer. Interestingly, although his ideology is clearly Victorian explorer, his demeanor is Victorian scientist – which is why he’s so able to connect with the Doctor, who always derived from the Victorian scientist archetype. It’s easy, when you look at him between Hartnell and Pertwee, to imagine that Troughton dropped this aspect of the character, but here we see that what he actually did was much more complex. He didn’t drop it so much as rebel against it, playing the Victorian scientist who had dropped acid and become enlightened. See also The Mind Robber. But it’s interesting the way that these two Victorian archetypes are shown here to be adjacent, with a real slippage between them. (In a story with more radical leanings, this equation of Victorian science and imperialism would be a fascinating point of departure. I say this because, many seasons from now, we’ll see that story.)
In terms of The Seeds of Death, where all of this becomes problematic is in the Ice Warriors. Although their plans are solidly in the category of “genocidal,” it is worth stopping and looking at what they’re actually doing. Hailing from a dying world, they are desperate to ensure their own survival. And so they are attempting to colonize Earth, and specifically to terraform it to their liking. This will, of course, result in the extinction of humanity. But remember, earlier in the thread I talked about terraforming as something that was an expected outcome of the future when I was growing up. This was something we fully expected to do to other planets.
We might duck and cover behind the idea that we would surely not have done it to populated planets, but saying that requires us to ignore the reality of imperialism at every stage of human history. Both manifest destiny-style imperialism and Victorian imperialism led to massive deaths among the conquered, generally with little fanfare or worry on the part of the empire.
In other words, The Seeds of Death on the one hand romanticizes the pioneering spirit of imperialism and creates villains who are evil because they act like imperialists act. In just four stories we’ll encounter a story that takes the question of an indigenous population rebelling against an occupying force much more seriously, but for now the real problem here is that the Doctor is so ruthlessly unsympathetic to the Ice Warriors. We’re miles here from the mad self-sacrificing Doctor in something like The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky who can’t destroy an invading alien force without giving them a choice first. Instead the Doctor casually dumps an entire fleet of Martians into the sun, runs around with what amounts to a solar gun shooting down Ice Warriors, and generally shows no problem whatsoever with all of this.
But in an odd way, this all becomes part of the vaguely elegiac feel of the story. The series, squeezed by budgets, suffering declining ratings, and seemingly on the brink of cancellation and saved, by the accounts of the production team, less because of their clever earth-based reinvention to come but because the BBC didn’t have any better ideas and so kept Doctor Who around, is in a real sense running out of ideas for this direction. We saw in the last story an alternate version of the Troughton years. But here, in The Seeds of Death, we see, albeit inadvertently, as clear an argument for the obsolescence of this version.
I’ve displayed a marked lack of patience with base under siege stories over the course of the Troughton era. The Seeds of Death essentially shows why. The central tension of the base under siege is that “they” are on the outside and trying to get in to hurt “us.” Sometimes – even most of the time – the show is able to dance around the immediate xenophobia of this. When the base is under siege from the Cybermen, well, they’re very consciously our own shadows. When it’s the Yeti, well, they’re robots. When it’s seaweed, that’s hardly a big deal. But all of this in aggregate starts to become xenophobic. Sure, there are terrible things bred in corners of the universe, but surely not everything that isn’t human is a faceless evil. The base under siege itself is fine, but as a mode of being for the series, it’s maddening in its overall portrayal of the alien.
And in The Seeds of Death, that really becomes clear, because the argument for why the Ice Warriors should be treated as generic evils to be slaughtered is really, really weak. And suddenly we can see the whole flawed structure of this era. For all that Troughton’s Doctor was an anarchic source of enlightenment, the series never quite worked up the strength to turn his anarchic tendencies against the Victorian imperialist values that still, to a great extent, underpinned the series. Consider, after all, that when the Doctor was traveling with two companions from Earth’s past, one of them – the Scotsman – is the primitive idiot, while the other – the Victorian girl – is never used to be comically thick, but is instead treated as the fetishized and perfect body-in-peril, the adoring object of the male gaze.
And so it comes to this, in which the Doctor praises neo-Victorian adventuring imperialism with one hand while gunning down imperialists with the other, the only difference seeming to be that one set of imperialists is human and British and the other is green. The Troughton era’s one catastrophic blind spot stands revealed – for all of its anarchic and psychedelic charm, it could never bring itself to hurl the brick through its own window. And as the psychedelic spaceship crashes back to Earth, this contradiction becomes fatal. There is no way past it without completely altering the entire structure of the show.
This is the real elegiac content of The Seeds of Death. It, more than any Troughton story, explains why the Pertwee era was necessary. Because before the Doctor can fight aliens in space again, he’s going to have to be forced to throw the brick through the window of the culture that made him – mainstream contemporary Britain.