Skulltopus 11: Changing States
Before the Skulltopus series moves on to the Baker years (and beyond), I feel the need to settle accounts with the Pertwee era, particularly with Peladon. Also, I need to clarify something about the way capitalism is portrayed and perceived in – and by – Doctor Who.
The maggots in ‘The Green Death‘ are the Pertwee era’s last gasp of the Weirdesque. ‘Green Death’ is also the last Pertwee story to properly notice capitalism.
Admittedly, there is some riffing on ‘greed’ in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’; and ‘Monster of Peladon’ regurgitates (in a reduced form) the political semiotics of its parent story. However, in these stories, while class is in evidence… class struggle even!… there is no tracing it back to anything recognisable as capitalist social relations.
I’ll get to this, but first I want to loop back to address something about ‘Carnival of Monsters’ that I should’ve mentioned previously: Vorg as an entrepreneur and how this relates to the society in which he finds himself. Firstly, Inter-Minor isn’t recognisably capitalist. The latent revolution in ‘Carnival’ – the imminent revolt of the Functionaries that President Zarb (the panicky social democrat) is trying to placate and Kalik (the fascist) wants to crush – tracks back to race (the story does some heavy riffing on race) but stops there. It comes close… at one point mentioning a strike… but we get no sense of particularly capitalist relations. There are no wages, no profits, no recognisable industrial workplaces and only the barest suggestion of a market at the very end. Vorg, like other Robert Holmes creations, can be read as an embodiment of a more likeable version of free enterprise. Like Milo Clancy or Garron, Vorg is a private operator, a colourful chancer, an individualist, a guy on the make who seems vital and amusing when stood next to grey statist authoritarians. But Vorg’s polari version of laissez faire is ultimately judged harmless, or even constructive. He gets some stick for keeping “livestock” in the scope… and it’s possible to read the scope itself as a metaphor for commodity fetishism, displaying how commodification of living people involves their compartmentalisation and alienation from proper awareness of the endless rut in which they circle. However, I think this is far more about race as an artificial construct than it is about commodification (I’ll try to address this in another post some time). And, ultimately, Vorg’s carny capitalism seems to be a potential force for change, progress and reform in the insular, ultra-statist backwater of Inter-Minor. He ends the story fleecing Pletrac… but the tone the story takes with this implies that a dose of Vorg is just what the Inter-Minorans need. To the extent that capitalism appears in ‘Carnival’, it does so through the rosy lens of Vorg.
Now, back to the post-‘Green Death’ Pertwee era.
‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ is a densely political text, hugely ambivalent and needing a great deal of unpacking. There is, as I say, some harping on about the evils of ‘greed’ and an implied anxiety about industrial pollution… but, ultimately, the story essentializes the social dystrophies of capitalism into malformations in human nature, which are (it is implied) exacerbated when people go around believing things. This is in line with Hulke’s liberalism – he really was a liberal, you know, rather than a communist – though the sheer pessimism on display is a new development, probably related to the ebbing of protest and struggle in the mid-70s. Hulke is at his most radical (‘The War Games’ in ’68) when protest and struggle are at their highest, so its no surprise to see him slump into despondency and disillusion as social struggle does the same. (I went into this, in brief, in the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.)
Now, ‘Monster of Peladon’. Hmm, what can I say about this story? Dear god, I hate it. Going into why in detail would take an entire post by itself. Or an entire series of posts, more likely. (Yes, yes, okay, I’ll get around to it one day – I know you love it when I trash stuff, you mean-spirited people.)
Suffice it to say, ‘Monster’ is aware of the exploitation of workers but doesn’t think this bad in and of itself. It’s just that the workers should be treated well and get a seat at the table of government… or rather, an ex-worker should. After all, there’s nothing “only” about being a miner… just as long as a miner doesn’t become aware of the class struggle, whereupon he becomes nothing but a violent, callous, fanatical, looney-left agitator type, who needs to die so the sane miners can come to an equitable understanding with the people who live off them. There are also callous fanatics in government, of course. The reactionaries. Thus, the clash of the fundamental interests of rulers and ruled becomes an unhinged pathology in the minds of extremists – be they raving Scargills or misguided Thatchers – to be solved by all parties pulling together in the national interest against a foreign foe. The imperialism of a great power is almost depicted when the Ice Warriors turn up, ostensibly to ensure the continuation of a smooth flow of resources from the client state to the empire… but they turn out to be members of a subversive group working for a foreign power. This is like representing the 1954 coup in Guatemala as the work of American communists who wanted to send all the bananas to Russia, rather than a CIA operation on behalf of the United Fruit Company.
More fundamentally, there is a very much reduced consciousness of capitalism in this story.
The original Peladon tale heavily implied capitalist trade and development as something positive, as progress that was coming to sweep away the ‘old ways’… but, in its liberalism, it saw a certain dark potentiality which it manifested in the person of Arcturus. He was a quasi-skulltopus because ‘Curse of Peladon’ was using two clashing system of signs: the gothic, to represent the ‘backwardness’ of fedualism, and the Who-version of the tentacular Weird, which had come (in ‘Spearhead from Space‘ and ‘Claws of Axos‘) to be furtively associated with capital. Arcturus merges the two systems because he’s a representative of the capitalist future but he’s also a reactionary protectionist who wants to restrict Peladon’s access to markets (he wants their minerals for his people alone) and who allies himself with Hepesh, the figurehead of the old, feudal values. Centauri, meanwhile, is the ‘nice’ form of the capitalist tentacular, offering free and unfettered access to trade, etc. This was a reflection of the liberal view of the UK’s imminent entry into the Common Market. (I go into this matter here.)
‘Monster’, however, was broadcast after miners’ strikes had brought down a Tory government. Miners were by far the most powerful and organised group of militant workers in the country and were winning inspiring (or terrifying, depending on your place in the class struggle) victories. Accordingly, in its liberalism, ‘Monster’ flees from the whole issue of capitalism, even as it deals with the subject of labour unrest. This is its key tactic: stripping the unrest of its economic context. It transforms the Federation into less an implied trade and development grouping and more a military power in conflict with a machiavellian rival. It notices that ‘progress’ has done little for the miners but blames this on the enemy, on the war, and on the truculence and superstition of the miners themselves.
Unavoidably, people at the time of broadcast would’ve been reminded of real-world miners’ struggles of the day, but within the text itself the Peladonian miners seem like generic sci-fi rebels crossed with Mummerset yokels. Their objections are not about working conditions or wages but are instead focused on resentment of authority and backward fear of technology.
And, crucially, their masters (local and federal) seem like military statists rather than a private company. They are mining for a combination of the feudal Peladonian state and the representatives of the Federation, itself apparently an interplanetary ‘state of states’ which is demanding their minerals for defensive war rather than for trade per se, and certainly not for profit.
This matters to the tentacles. This is why they don’t erupt again, except in the recycled figure of Centauri. ‘Curse’ used tentacles to signify capitalism, as had previous stories… but it does so happily, seeing capitalism as bringing progress both economic and social. ‘Monster’ was made at a time when this view was already harder to sustain, so it evades capitalism almost entirely. Having already used tentacles to signify capitalism in ‘Curse’, Hayles can’t reverse this dialectic and then use them to evade capitalism in ‘Monster’. He must edit out both capitalism and, as a result, the tentacular. That’s why ‘Monster’ is so careful to make the miners into the subjects of states, to make their product into a military necessity rather than something to trade. In the widespread cultural understanding of capitalism, this tactic is all that is needed to all-but remove capitalism from the text, even by implication. Even the Federation aliens have become not delegates vying for trade but mining engineers, technicians, enforcers, etc.
Now, in the real world, there is no reason why capitalism can’t function as a state system rather than through private enterprise. Indeed, to a large extent, it does… and always has. The essence of capitalism is not private property but rather the generalisation of commodity production through wage labour, leading to the accumulation and reinvestment of capital. Capital can take the form of the state. To be crude: workers can be paid to make commodities by the state. States, whole economies, can – and do – work this way. The old ‘communist’ states – and even some that cling to life – worked this way. Most economies today are ‘mixed’ in that they have a private and a public sector, though neoliberalism has greatly undermined the scope and power of the public sector globally, at least outside the realms of military and police power, which it has increased. Even in largely ‘free market’ economies there are vast sectors in which the state employs masses of people, directs labour, pays wages and, through this process, extracts surplus in the form of products and/or services, surplus which generates revenue which goes into accumulation and reinvestment. The essence of capitalism. The failure to understand this simple issue – which, in fairness, has been systematically obscured with propaganda and misprision from virtually all corners (the mainstream liberals, the free-marketeers and the reformist or authoritarian variants of the left) – has lead to a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what capitalism is and, consequently, what socialism should be. This is a digression, but a necessary one.
The point that needs to be made here is that capitalism is generally misunderstood as being quintessentially about private enterprise… so when you leave private companies out of texts, as they are left out of ‘Monster of Peladon’ and much of the rest of Doctor Who, you seem to leave out capitalism itself. My central idea in these ‘Skulltopus’ posts is that Doctor Who flees to a version of ‘the Weird’ when it needs to obscure capitalism as a systemic generator of the modern nightmares with which the show is obsessed. This is a rather clumsy way of talking about actual writers, actually resorting to certain strategies in their writing (albeit unconsciously) when they feel that what they are writing is veering towards something unsayable within the Who context (unsayable because we are trained to think of children’s entertainment as needing to be non-ideological, and critiques of capitalism seem ideological whereas tacit acceptance of capitalism seems ideologically neutral). In a social context in which few people fully understand that capitalism can and does function economically within political forms of statism, even forms which legally prohibit private companies, a writer is not going to feel this ‘veering towards the unsayable’ about a text which leaves out private companies. He or she will not feel capitalism looming as a presence within the text, no more than will most of the texts readers and/or viewers.
This is one major reason why the exploitation of wage labour seen in, say, ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ causes no unease which sends Doctor Who into a hunt for tactical incomprehensibility. The employees in the background are less subject to hierarchical pressure than those in, say, ‘Spearhead from Space’; they do not seem to connect with any social or technological nightmares of modernity since the story concentrates instead upon putatively biological moral flaws in ‘Man’; and, most especially, they are employees of the state rather than of a private firm. Their work seems geared towards the utilitarian aims of the state rather than to the profit of a private capitalist. It is the same with ‘Monster of Peladon’. The Peladonian miners may have made viewers think of present-day miners’ struggles, but within the text they seemed not to relate to capitalism precisely because they are the paid subjects of a state system rather than a private company.
What this misses, of course, is that the state as we know it is a capitalist state, an emanation of the capitalist system, fused with capitalism, a form of capitalist social relation, a form of alienation, etc. But, fascinating as this subject may be, it is way outside both my expertise and my remit here. It is, for instance, fascinating that the Peladon stories (unwittingly) depict a fedual state evolving to fit capitalist social relations… since the modern European state system arose under fedualism and adapted to fit capitalism as the new system grew within it. But you don’t want to read my amateur musings on this. Still less, in my view, do you want to take any notice of what Brian Hayles says.