Mandela was unquestionably a great man. But he was great because he was once a fierce fighter against oppression, not because he was a saint with a nice line in inspirational aphorisms. He was also a flawed human being whose party, under his leadership, capitulated to capitalism, embraced neoliberalism and perpetuated drastic economic inequality. Let’s mourn the passing of a fighter against racial discrimination, who endured decades of suffering (on a level that I can’t even conceptualise, let alone imagine myself tolerating) for his principles. But let’s not lose ourselves in lachrymose sentimentality and forget the real history of post-Apartheid South Africa.
What can I do but cheat?
Three moments, not in chronological order.
Barbara Wright is in a junkyard. She walks into a Police Box. She’s in a large, brightly lit control room.
This can happen on screen because of the cut. The material conditions of TV production, manifested as a splicing together of two recorded moments into the appearance of one fluid event, makes this possible. We have “discovered television”. We can put huge buildings inside small boxes. We can put Narnia inside the wardrobe; Wonderland inside the rabbit hole. The quintessential trait of British fantastic literature for kids – the eccentric relationship of impossible spaces – can be made visual.
Doctor Who‘s very nature as storytelling is utterly bound up with the limits of the material conditions of television production. So much so that living on that limit became its raison d’etre. Its development has always been inextricably connected with what can materially be done, and how it is done. And what it has done has always developed what it wants to be able to do next. As I’ve said elsewhere, ‘The Space Museum’ pushes the show onto a new track, politically speaking… and it does this partly because the aesthetics of the show – which stem from the limits and capabilities of material TV production – crunch up against an allegory about empire. This sort of thing happens several times, but the first time it happens is that cut from the junkyard to the control room. The kind of story that is told is fundamentally shaped by its material production. Later, the kinds of stories that are being told demand new developments in how stories can be told. The dialectic starts here.
This is analogous (I’ll go no further than that) to one aspect of how history itself works. The productive forces determine (in the soft sense) the ideas and relations built upon them; then they come into conflict and new ideas arise that demand new developments in the productive forces. It’s fitting to find this analogy in the clockwork of a show that puts so much stress on history. It does stress history, by the way, even when it moves away from ‘historicals’ and into SF. Its mode of SF is essentially allegorical and utopian. And that too is fitting, because of those eccentric and impossible spaces of British fantastic children’s literature upon which the show is so reliant. In the post-war era, those spaces became gateways to newly-imagined social pasts, presents and futures. Under the rubble, rabbit holes might lead to a New Jerusalem.
The Doctor picks up a sharp rock. Ian evidently suspects that the Doctor intends to do something brutally pragmatic and brain Za with it. The Doctor claims he wanted to ask Za to draw a map back to the ship.
Either way, the Doctor saw a rock and decided to use it as a tool. Given that this story is about ‘cavemen’ who are dying out because they’ve forgotten how to use their own technology, I think this is pretty big.…
This is a slightly-expanded/tweaked version of something originally published in the January 2011 edition of Panic Moon. Back issues of this excellent fanzine (now, sadly, on hiatus) are still available, here.
In ‘The Mutants’, Earth’s empire is the British Empire in decline, as it disassembles itself out of economic necessity (true in general terms but misleading in particular; the British were usually savage in their resistance to independence). The Marshall echoes Ian Smith, who ran the racist apartheid state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and tried to hang on after the British cut him loose.
We get a positive view of a national liberation movement. Ky is clearly the figurehead of a powerful anti-Overlord groundswell; they’re called “terrorists” naturally, and maybe they are, but they’re fighting for their freedom. We get no patronising sermons to oppressed people about non-violence.
The system is depicted as inherently racist, featuring a version of apartheid. The Solonians are not black, but then neither were the Irish… and they were the first to come under the British heel. ‘The Mutants’ shows racism, quite rightly, as the ideology of empire, not the cause.
There is an apologia for empire that stresses the “progress” it can bring to its subjects. The concept of “progress” is really what this story interrogates. Earth hasn’t brought much to Solos, whatever the Administrator’s ceremonial bromides. Of course, Solos only seemed in need of ‘progress’ to the humans. It suited the Solonians just fine, as you’d expect. This expresses something very true about colonialism: that what the colonisers see as raw material needing to be shaped, the colonised often see as shaped just fine already thank you very much. To the Overlords, what they’d call “progress” (uniforms, racism and technology that destroys ecosystems) is all up on Skybase, their celestial seat. Understandably, Ky rejects it. The script backs him up with the descriptions of Earth as worn out, a wasteland of ash, slag and clinker: “the fruits of technology” as the Doctor says. This is the real reason for the humans’ presence on Solos. This is fairly accurate as a picture of a declining empire. An empire that, say, runs on fossil fuels that are gradually running out might be keen to control other people’s oil. Of course, you can’t really understand modern imperialism without understanding capitalism, which doesn’t appear in ‘The Mutants’, not even by implication.
Imperial “progress” often means people like Jaeger using their advanced technology to customize colonies for their needs in ways that will decimate the natives. This is pretty much what happened when the white man arrived in Africa and America. The Doctor is there to personify the other possibility; the humanistic, ethical science that we’d all like to believe in. There is no idiotic blanket condemnation of science, just recognition that it can be a weapon in the hands of power. We are also invited to condition science with an awareness that older forms of discourse might have objective validity. The Doctor brings the ancient artefacts of the Solonians to the attention of hippy-anthropologist Sondergaard and they find accurate accounts of history and biology in the native culture.
I used to think that this story represented evolution (inaccurately) as an upward progress from brutish animalism to enlightened and “higher” forms… but that doesn’t hold.…
(This was originally written for May Day.)
Some people think Doctor Who is inherently left-wing. This is bullshit. But… like much bullshit, there’s a fibrous grain of truth in there somewhere if you don latex gloves, break the crust and delve deeply enough into the contents of the pat.
Doctor Who started just before the worldwide explosion of dissent and protest that represents the real point of what is called (inaccurately) “the 60s”. It ran through the years of the Vietnam war, the end of the post-war economic boom, the worldwide wave of protests by students and workers, France in ’68, the Prague Spring, the height of the civil rights movement, the ascendancy (and murder) of Martin Luther King Jnr., the rise of the women’s movement and feminism, the rise of the gay liberation movement, etc. It ran during interesting times. It reflected the massive changes in social attitude that were transforming Western culture – how could it not, being a product of Western culture? It reflected something amorphous and overhyped (but real) that we call “the liberal consensus”, which is easy to take for granted now but which was a drastic change in the whole nature and consciousness of Western capitalist society, brought about by the struggles of kids, students, minorities, oppressed people and workers. It was, for the most part, shaped by creative people who were interested in their world and had a tendency to be open-minded, liberal and tolerant in their outlook, i.e. people like Barry Letts. And, later, it reflected the backlash against these changes which were lead, on this little island, by Margaret “Evil Edna” Thatcher, a backlash of which a younger generation of lefty/eco/liberals like Andrew Cartmel were strongly disapproving.
Moreover, the show was originally a product of a state-funded public service broadcaster that didn’t have to compete in the marketplace in order to survive and had a mandated role to reflect the entire nation. Beyond wanting there to be someone for the kids to identify with (and Dad to lust over) there wasn’t much time spent on demographics and other such marketing preoccupations (at least not compared to today). Reith may have been a reactionary old patrician, but Reithianism in the abstract is almost a quality-not-quantity ethic with paternalistic distortions. And the cheap-and-cheerful nature of the old series gave it a strange freedom, at least some of the time. The BBC always used the show as a cash cow, but it has only become so near-crucial to BBC prestige and revenue in recent years. And there is also the philistinism of management to remember – a BBC bigwig might send an angry memo to a producer if he thinks an episode is too scary for the nation’s chidlers while missing the fact that the same episode is sub-textually critiquing Western imperialism.
Given all this, and given the variety of writers who contributed to it over the years, it would be amazing if Doctor Who hadn’t occasionally aligned itself with workers – especially during times of heightened class struggle.…