On ‘The War Games’. From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon.
The last Doctor Who story of the 1960s is the high point of the show’s attempts to engage with the radicalism of that era. It was made just as the worldwide protests against the Vietnam war reached a crescendo. It’s been called an ‘anti-war’ story, but this is wrong. It’s an anti-imperialist story and, up until the last episodes, it supports revolution.
Pacifism is not advocated. Carstairs uses his pistol to protect the Ambulance and the Doctor never bats an eyelid. The Resistance kill guards all over the place. The Doctor’s aim for much of the story is to raise an army to fight the aliens. ‘The War Games’ supports revolutionary violence.
The violence that ‘The War Games’ condemns is that of imperialism. The aim of the aliens is conquest. That’s all that lies beneath everything that goes on in their War Zones. Meanwhile, ‘Butcher’ Smythe and von Weich amuse themselves playing Risk with human lives. It goes beyond noticing that top brass can be callous. The British and German commanding officers have more in common with each other than with their men. They are fundamentally different – alien – to the grunts whose lives they control and squander. They report to the same system of aggressive expansion, and both keep their communication devices hidden behind portraits of their monarchs. Under patriotism, imperialism lurks.
This is really about class. The generals are one class, the soldiers are another. Carstairs and Lady Jennifer are posh but, otherwise, the soldiers in ‘The War Games’ are the workers (and peasants) of the world. They’re pawns on the board of the ‘great game’. The map of the War Zones even looks like a game board. Those soldiers who throw off their mental processing (ie the ideology of their rulers) start cooperating across lines of nationality and race. Russell looks like he comes from a British imperial war of the 19th century, but he treats Harper, a black man, as a trusted ally. They even start to overcome sexism. Zoe lectures Arturo Villa about tactics and forces him to listen. Kidding aside, Jamie supports her. When the soldiers fight together instead of against each other – like Jamie and the Redcoat with whom he’s imprisoned – they can end the war. That’s why the First World War Zone is constantly referred to as “the 1917 Zone”, because it was in 1917 that a revolution in Russia started a chain of events which lead to a revolt against the Kaiser and the end of the slaughter.
Terrance Dicks’ story about people on a game board (which he tells repeatedly) probably got inflected with revolutionary politics via ex-communist Malcolm Hulke. 1968 re-radicalised him, it seems. However, in the end, although the Doctor’s vanguard conquers the imperialist stronghold and stops the war, they don’t take over. Instead, the Doctor calls in the ‘good’ establishment to clear up after the ‘bad’ establishment. The Resistance will end up back in their ‘real’ wars, their minds wiped of the internationalism and solidarity they learned through struggle.…
From the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon. Slightly expanded.
Some people say that ‘The Macra Terror’ is about holiday camps, but I think there’s more to it than that. The Colony is obsessed with work. It organises communal entertainment, but this seems to consist of revues about how great it is to be worker. The aim is to make people “happy to work”. These people are not on holiday.
The surveillance and brainwashing suggests totalitarianism, but the area where Barney provides makeovers looks less like Russia and more like a health spa or a salon on a Western high street. Polly is told she’ll win a competition that sounds like Miss World (which the U.S.S.R. disdained until 1989). The Pilot sits at a desk attended by a secretary, looking like a sitcom businessman. Ola’s guards look like the kind of American or British riot police who were, by this time, often being seen on the news, clashing with demonstrators.
.The key to understanding this strange tale is the fact that, by 1967, a lot of people saw tyranny on both sides of the iron curtain. In the 60s, Western society was largely prosperous but also lived in the shadow of the bomb, of Vietnam, of racial and sexual discrimination. There was inequality, protest and repression. In 1967, the turbulence was just about to peak. The media might have presented Western culture as happy, free, even ‘swinging’, but the counter-culture began to critique mass advertising and P.R. as methods of thought control. Trendy theorists like Herbert Marcuse identified totalitarian currents within capitalism and saw consumerism as creating alienation. (It’s interesting, in light of this, how often Doctor Who – a product of the 60s after all – combines its strongest hints at a critique of capitalism with the aesthetics of totalitarianism, i.e. ‘The Sun Makers’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’. This is also interesting in light of the analysis of Stalinism which sees it as a bureaucratic form of state capitalism.)
‘The Macra Terror’ is perhaps Doctor Who’s earliest attempt to engage with the radical 60s. The Colony is mainstream Britain in denial. The Colony media seems very ‘ITV matey’ but also quite ‘BBC formal’. Both the commercial and state style conspire to keep the drones chirpy. The main work is gas mining. In 1967, Britain was switching over to North Sea gas. It was all part of Britain’s prosperous future, if everyone would just pull together, work hard and keep smiling. The protestors and hippies were just spoiling things.
The big problem with Medok is that he isn’t happy. He talks about the Macra. They represent the repressed knowledge that something is very wrong with society. They’re everywhere but are unseen. Nobody believes in them but everyone knows their name. People who talk about them are silenced with telling desperation. When the Colonists do see them, they remain uncertain whether they are insects or bacteria… interestingly, the only suggestion nobody makes is that they are crabs. The Doctor calls them germs in the brain of society.…
This is a slightly edited and expanded version of something originally published in the April 2011 issue of Panic Moon. Many thanks to Oliver Wake, the Editor, for commissioning it.
When the Doctor first encounters the White Guardian, we are encouraged to think – just for a moment – that the TARDIS might have been waylaid by God himself. Nothing so grand (or potentially offensive), as it turns out. However, the White Guardian is clearly a powerful, godlike entity. Yet he is suavely seated, sipping crème de menthe, as the Doctor stays on his feet.
Later, when we encounter the White Guardian again, he and his opposite number sit at a table on Wrack’s ship, while everyone else stays standing.
I wonder if you, Constant Reader, have ever noticed how often ‘gods’ in Doctor Who are depicted sitting? Sutekh spends most of his story sitting. Indeed, that’s his problem. The Keeper of Traken has to sit for thousands of years in a chair, but that’s the price of being the patriarch of an entire empire, able to flit about the universe at will… and meanwhile, all the Melkur wants to do is to finally take a seat.
In ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’, the judges who will decide the Doctor’s fate, the “supreme guardians of Gallifreyan law” who’ve enjoyed “ten million years of absolute power”, never rise from behind their benches. The dimension behind the Psychic Circus is presided over by the Gods of Ragnarok, who seem to be stone idols, carved into an eternally seated posture.
I think, on one level, this has to do with the deep link between ideas of divinity and royalty. For centuries, monarchs (who have been absolute autocrats until relatively recently in history) have styled themselves “little gods on Earth” and claimed the “divine right of Kings” (though it should be said that this notion declined somewhat in Europe in the face of the political realities of the Middle Ages, only to be consciously revived, perhaps most especially by the Stewarts). Such caveats being assumed, it’s fair to say that the idea of god/s has long been utilised as ideology by monarchies. The Pharaohs claimed to be divine. Roman Emperors got up to the same thing (though they tended to be deified only after death). Like Monarch (the frog-god-king in ‘Four to Doomsday’ who spends most of his time imperiously enthroned) they sometimes believed their own propaganda.
Conversely, we may also draw our conception of God from our experience of kings. In ‘Pyramids of Mars’ the Doctor says that “Egyptian culture” was “founded upon the Osiran pattern”; in reality, the Egyptians probably partly derived their notions of feuding gods from their experience of their royal dynasties.
This is all pretty obvious really. You could fill books (and people have) with the ideological connections between royalty and religion. However, like a lot of obvious things, it can sometimes be a bit too much of a given, and thus fly under our radar.…
Yes folks, my empire continues to expand. My influence spreads. Soon, very soon, I shall be published for the second time. Tomorrow, the world.
Robert Smith?’s latest project – Outside In – arrives on 23rd November.
|Astonishingly, my name isn’t on the cover. Must’ve been an oversight.|
Full details here, but basically it’s a compendium of reviews. Every Doctor Who story reviewed… and here’s the thing… by a different writer. The promise is that these reviews are going to be a bit different, offering a new take.
I’m in there, reviewing ‘Snakedance’. It’s a slightly tweaked version of a piece I originally wrote for the (sadly resting) fanzine Panic Moon, so the editor – the estimable Oliver Wake – must share credit for dragging the essay out of me in the first place.…
This is a slightly-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.
Plant monsters. That’s an old one. Where does it come from? Maybe it’s about the Venus Fly Trap, the cactus or the thorns on the stem of a rose. Maybe it’s about the faces that we see in the gnarled bark of trees; the faces that gave us generations of tales about tree folk. We see this in ‘The Seeds of Doom’, in the initial humanoid shape of the monster, in its booming threats, in its communion with Chase, in the way that the Doctor keeps calling it Keeler ironically, having chided Sarah for referring to the transformed Winlett by name.
Maybe it’s the sheer unnerving silence and mindlessness of things that nonetheless seem to have flesh and veins and skin, that nonetheless grow and move and breed. We see this in ‘The Seeds of Doom’, with all the emphasis on skin, blood and pain… and Chase’s obsessional desire to “see what happens when the Krynoid touches human flesh”. We see this in the way the Krynoid moves, unfettered by roots. The way it seethes and crawls. The way it is tentacular, like the octopoda or squid monsters that pervade 20th century literary/cinematic/political monsterology, standing
for the threatened global reach of the powerfully, shapelessly, amorphously unknowable.
Maybe the Krynoid is an echo of the trauma of the first humans to discover that sometimes delicious-looking vegetation gives you agonizing stomach ache… or kills you… or causes terrifying hallucinations. We can see this fear demonstrated in Stevenson, mesmerised by his pod… and Winlett and Keeler so “taken over” that they literally transform into nightmare images of the insane roots that have taken their reason prisoner.
Maybe it’s guilt at tearing up and eating beautiful, living, growing things; we see this in Chase’s later ideological hatred of “animal fiends”. Maybe we can’t help see it – on some level – as exploitation, hence the Doctor’s word: “revolution”. Maybe it’s guilt at the way we wipe out plant species with our industrialised carelessness, guilt that makes us imagine them turning on us. We see this in the existence of the World Ecology Bureau, and Chase’s accusation to Dunbar that the endangered plants are ignored because of a pro-animal bias.
Maybe it’s about ancient history, about wars between peoples over cultivated land covered in crops; organised violence that had been unknown to hunter-gatherer societies for thousands of years until the development of agriculture. Maybe it’s the old and persistent nightmare of the classes of priests and administrators who started to rise once agriculture came, who hoarded the surplus grain and used it to wield power over the people. We see these fears demonstrated in ‘The Seeds of Doom’, with Scorby the violent capturer of coveted plants, with Harrison Chase (the sole proprietor and abbot of a “green cathedral”) lording it over everyone else because of his wealth, owning people “body and soul”.
Maybe it’s to do with the way vegetation encroaches upon human civilisations, almost like an invading enemy, unless carefully held in check.…
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.…
According to China Miéville, the classic, early 20th century haute Weird of Lovecraft and Hodgson is the nebulous, meaningless, reactionary scream of incomprehension that greets the onrushing horror of modernity.
I think that, for 70s Doctor Who, a resurrected and processed form of the Weird is what the show draws upon when it finds itself haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot face: the knowledge that the modern nightmares upon which it dwells are generated by capitalism. When the themes of a 70s Doctor Who story suggest the possibility that capitalism could be noticed and indicted in systemic terms – particularly in terms of the exploitation of the worker, race and/or imperialism – the show tries to jettison the hauntological (realising that it is itself being haunted… nay, stalked) in favour of the Weird.
I intend to justify these outrageous claims in a forthcoming post.
In my last post – here – I casually asserted that the Weirdish ab-crabs in ‘The Macra Terror’ are a “prelude” to the connection the show will make in the 70s between the tentacle and capitalism. It occurs to me that I need to expand a bit on my Skulltopus post about the Macra – here – in order to make myself clear on this point.
I think that the Colony in ‘The Macra Terror’ is a picture of mainstream Britain in denial during the radical late 60s, of a prosperous capitalist world that runs on repression, oppression, obedience, media conditioning, hierarchy. The Colony strongly hints at being capitalist in various ways, not least the Butlins vibe that everyone talks about, the Pilot’s sitcom businessman manner, Barney’s salon and spa, etc.
Most explicitly, the story concentrates on the mining of gas… and Britain in 1967 was right in the middle of switching over to North Sea Gas. In the story, the gas (a toxic substance that humans don’t need and which actively endangers workers) is mined for the benefit of other, hidden, possibly insane reasons/persons – in this case, the Macra.
The Macra, as I noted elsewhere, are extremely hauntological (in that material/pseudo-materialist way that things are hauntological in Who) in that they actively and literally haunt the Colony while clearly representing something that the characters all know must be denied. In the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon, I hint that this repressed knowledge is the knowledge that they are exploited – specifically and explicitly as workers – by an irrational tyranny, and that this ties into the way that the radical currents in the late 60s were popularizing a critique of Western consumerist capitalism as tyrannical and alienating.
And so, whether it be cause or effect, we get Weirdish monsters.
They are giant crabs, as in some classic Weird fiction… except that, when you listen to the story (especially since you have to listen to it) they are also categorically indeterminate, big/small, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly, even – especially – when they see them.
Moreover, the Macra’s own mentalities are extremely contradictory, incoherent, self-denying… to the point of bordering on psychosis.…
The January 2012 issue of the extremely good, fetchingly illustrated, conveniently pocket-sized and infeasibly cheap print fanzine Panic Moon will be released soon and is now available for pre-order. Click here.
This month the Editor has taken the existence of the publication very much into his hands and granted me even more space than usual. I have no less than three pieces in this forthcoming issue, looking at ‘The Macra Terror’, ‘The War Games’ and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’.
I see all these stories as milestones in Doctor Who‘s engagement with the radical movements and ideas of the 60s. ‘The Macra Terror’ is a much-misunderstood starting point which came just before the protest movements peaked, ‘The War Games’ a subversive high point which came just after the ferment of 1968 and ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ marks the ambivalence and disillusion brought by the subsequent downturn in struggle.
There’s loads of other stuff in the fanzine besides me, so don’t be put off.…
The indefatigable Mr. Oliver Wake has put together and released the latest issue of the print fanzine Panic Moon. It can be ordered here.
It contains (amongst other things) a judicious appraisal of the ‘Day of the Daleks’ Special Edition, a look at the way Hartnell’s shade has taken to haunting the recent series, a clever thing about the way Daleks always seem to get some new physical ability in first episodes, an interesting look at the pre-Who 60s Pathfinders serials which are now out on DVD and an excellent analysis of ‘The Sun Makers’ which identifies some of its roots, going beyond the usual stuff about Bob Holmes being annoyed by a tax bill.
Once again, I’ve contributed two articles. In one, I identify a blind spot in the lefty-liberal creds of ‘Colony in Space’ and try to tease out some of implications of this, leading me to briefly consider something badly amiss with liberalism itself. In another article, I have a good old ramble about the various ways Doctor Who has creatively misrepresented evolution, often using it was a way of re-encoding mythic themes or addressing political concerns… though there is, I argue, one story that really is about evolution itself.
It’s good, so… umm… buy it. Please?
(No career in advertising awaits me, I know.)…