|We call it… the drink machine.|
It’s October 5th, 1987. M/A/R/R/S are at number one with “Pump Up The Volume/Antina (The First Time I See She Dance). A week later The Bee Gees unseat them with “You Win Again,” Erasure, Billy Idol, Bananarama, George Michael, and Pet Shop Boys also chart. As do The Sisters of Mercy, with “This Corrosion,” so, you know, welcome to the glory days of goth.
In real news, the south of England gets whacked with what is functionally a hurricane, killing 23 people and knocking out power across the region. The New York Stock Exchange jumps off a cliff to the tune of 22.61%, leading to similar fun on the London Stock Exchange. And Robert Bork is rejected from the US Supreme Court.
While on television, we have Paradise Towers, the supposed 8th worst Doctor Who story of all time. It is, by the way, absolutely brilliant. i say this to make clear, this is not one of my redemptive readings, that phrase implying as it does that there is something about the story requiring redemption. The only thing about this story to maybe require a spot of redemption is the acting, and we’ll get there. But since everybody, when talking about this story, wants to go on about Richard Briers, let’s leave the acting for as long as possible and talk about everything else first.
Because if you set the acting aside Paradise Towers fits very smoothly into a lengthy tradition of literature and thought about housing. If we were to sketch a quick history of this, it would go something like this. In the 1950s-70s there was a bizarre little fad in architecture called Brutalism. You know the type of building – those horrific piles of angular concrete that scream out the era of their production like the muted eyesores they are.
In practice brutalism marks the death throes of modernism. Modernism is a term that is perhaps even more devalued than postmodernism, which is an impressive feat when one stops to think about it. But for our purposes the two most important things to note about modernism is that it aggressively rejected tradition while still putting an enormous premium on notions of form and structure. This caused it to eventually fall awkwardly between both the right and the left. The right hated it because it was too non-traditional and because Hitler hated painters who were better than him, which is to say, virtually everybody. The left, on the other hand, noticed that an alarming number of modernists turned into fascists who were, after all, equally fond of throwing out the established order of things and replacing it with a rigidly designed new system.
After World War II, however, modernism broke out in architecture in a big way. The post-war fascination with technocracy and the sudden availability of lots of modernist architects who had fled the Nazis meant that everybody wanted to do big urban renewal projects with grand designs and visions. Hence the rise of brutalism. The archetypal product of this were what in the US are usually called housing projects (as in “living in the projects”) and in the UK are council estates (as in the backronym of chav as “council housed and violent”). That is to say, government-subsidized affordable housing.
In the brutalist style this turned out to be a disaster. The standard example is Pruitt-Igoe, a shoddily constructed block of housing that quickly degenerated into a crime-ridden nightmare and was demolished less than twenty years after its construction. The two extremes of this form a clear snapshot of this sort of modernism. On the one hand, Pruitt-Igoe was an unmitigated disaster of a construction. On the other, it was built by respected architects and was an acclaimed piece of architecture. The contrast led to the ironically derogatory phrase “award-winning design” to refer to something beloved by architectural critics and thus, by implication, almost certainly a piece of crap in practice.
For those who have been following the blog for a while, you may recall that we briefly dealt with J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition just under a year ago. Ballard, in his time, was one of the more scathing critics of this sort of modernism, and indeed, one of his better books was his 1975 novel High Rise, about a modernist apartment block falling into a raging internal civil war. This sort of thing was very much in vogue in the 1970s – a criticism of the technocratic structures that underlay modernism and of the fetishistic worship of spectacle that they entailed. This was a major theme of the early Pertwee era, with its initial anxieties over technocratic structures giving way to an embrace of glam. After which Ballard and his ilk kind of fell out of fashion.
But in the 1980s, under Thatcher, this line of thought experienced a revival as, under Thatcher, urban renewal became chic again, this time in the name of redevelopment for major corporate clients. In the UK the major example is the London Docklands, which went from a working class area of London to a herd of glass and steel white elephants. (Now we’re well into East London Redevelopment Act II: Olympic Boogaloo) Like the first wave of modernist redevelopment this was based on the idea of “fixing” the bad areas of the city. Unlike the first wave, instead of fixing them by providing decent housing for the people who lived there, this wave sought to price them out and get them to move somewhere – anywhere else.
This led to the rise of a second wave of concern about modernism and its effects on ordinary people. But this second wave had some interestingly different concerns. Where the first wave had mostly been critical of the way in which totalitarian modernist visions crushed individuals and led to depraved social conditions, the second wave was interested in finding an alternative to the totalitarianism. The alternative of choice has generally been community-based strategies, in which local community groups band together to produce their own cooperative solutions to their problems, developing functional structures around their behavior instead of imposing them from above. Much of the sharpest opposition to austerity programs in the UK has come from these perspectives – ones that heavily inform the political thought of Rowan Williams as well, and, for that matter, of Barack Obama, whose role as a community organizer basically meant “doing this stuff.”
This second wave is, indirectly, a big influence on this blog. One of the people to come out of the late 80s critique of modernism was Iain Sinclair, a brilliantly obscurantist chronicler of the material East London who, in turn, became a mid-career inspiration for Alan Moore, whose work has increasingly combined Sinclair’s psychogeography with Moore’s fascination with Ideaspace, tracking the imaginary geographies of things – an idea that led directly to my discarding the physical geography entirely and taking an idle stroll across an entirely imaginary landscape of memory. And Moore’s more recent work – particularly his tragically aborted underground magazine Dodgem Logic – has focused very explicitly on the failing council houses of his native Northampton and the practical lives of the impoverished in his own community.
Paradise Towers fits completely in this tradition. Kroagnan, the Great Architect who despised how people ruined his perfect designs, is a straightforward parodic critique of the modernist architect. The devolution of Paradise Towers from beautiful planned community to urban warzone is right out of Ballard. The equivalence between Kroagnan and zombies is a flat-out lift from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and its mall setting. Paradise Towers, through and through, is a contribution to this tradition of thought.
Tat Wood, in About Time, notes that it is the first story in some time to have no references to previous stories. This is a telling detail that explains at least part of why the story is unloved. The fact of the matter is that Doctor Who has, for several years now, been catering primarily to an audience of fans. Fandom is an exceedingly middle class practice, based as it is on a surplus of leisure time and the disposable income to fritter away on Dapol action figures, Target novelizations, trips to conventions, and other such commercial product. This fact is largely responsible for the maddening sociopathy of mainstream science fiction fandom – it’s a self-selected group of reasonably affluent people focused on capitalist production. They are myopic by design.
A story about modernism and council estates is, in other words, utterly removed from anything that a fan in the Ian Levine model would ever care about. And to be frank, large numbers of people who talk about Paradise Towers simply don’t seem remotely aware the larger literary tradition it fits into. They treat it as a naff runaround with silly concepts. And this inevitably makes it look like a much, much weaker story than it is. Which is fine – Tat Wood’s observation of the way in which it breaks from past stories by not catering to fans is telling. This isn’t a Doctor Who story for Doctor Who fans. It’s a Doctor Who story for the British public – an attempt to think of Doctor Who as an alternative to Coronation Street (which, of course, it was in the McCoy era – directly so).
To put it another way, Paradise Towers marks a return to a very old conception of what Doctor Who is based on the bygone utopian models of what the BBC is. It’s a story that is simultaneously tackling issues of concern to working class segments of society and framing them in terms of a larger and highbrow philosophical debate – something, in other words, that has something to say to large swaths of British society and that, more importantly, speaks to them as part of a unified whole. This used to be what the BBC was about and what it was for. This used to be what Doctor Who was for. About the only people really excluded from the audience to whom Paradise Towers attempts to be relevant are sad sack anoraks. Unfortunately, they were the only audience left, but that’s neither here nor there.
There is, however, a pesky set of grounds for criticism. This is ostensibly trying to go for Ballard-esque 2000 AD-inflected dystopias of street gangs and cannibal old women running around a council estate. Unfortunately, it looks like a children’s panto. This is somewhat dissonant, in much the same way that that claim is somewhat understated. But most of the criticisms of it miss the point. The usual line of critique is that Richard Briers as the Chief Caretaker overacts. Which, yes, he does.
The thing is, everyone overacts. It’s one thing when there’s one jarring note in the acting that skews a production. But here the entirety of the acting is skewed in the same direction. The Kangs are too old to be a child street gang and don’t so much act like a street gang as like a childish approximation thereof. The Rezzies are over the top. Pex is a completely inadequate parody of an action hero. And yes, Richard Briers is channeling his inner John Cleese in portraying a fascist authoritarian.
But look at that list – everything is pushed towards a broad and theatrical sort of children’s television. Paradise Towers isn’t a Ballardian dystopia screwed up by bad acting. It’s a Ballardian dystopia performed as broad-stroked children’s television. It is, in other words, a completely consistent genre fusion in which one of the genres is postmodernist social commentary and the other is low-rent children’s television.
Of course, fusing two flavors together is not an inherently good idea. But in this case there’s a pleasant logic to it. Both children’s television and Ballard have a strong commitment to a sort of wild excess. They are considerably closer than they might appear. The only reason to fault this, in other words, is if you really think that the discussions of anal sadism are the whole point of The Atrocity Exhibition. If, on the other hand, what you favor is its inventiveness and its sense of manic glee, Paradise Towers will be right up your alley.
And more to the point, Paradise Towers is a theft of what is, in 1987, a twelve year old book. It’s not like High Rise is brand spanking new and innovative anymore. A piece that just wallows gleefully in the sick and twisted nature of Paradise Towers is going to be little more than Vengance on Varos without as much self-awareness. On top of that, it was never going to work on Doctor Who, both because the BBC was never going to let outright Ballard go out under the Doctor Who banner, even in a later timeslot, and because Doctor Who was never going to be able to afford it anyway.
Whereas Doctor Who can nail low-rent children’s television in its sleep. And children’s television Ballard carries all of the frisson that Ballard could cause in the 1970s. The dissonance between the story’s apparent mood and its actual content is substantive. Ballard was always trading on the tradition of the grotesque, which the overacting is still perfectly compatible with. The tension between what the show is about and how it’s being performed is tangible – which is to say that all of the grotesqueries are more noticeable through their absence than they ever could be through presence in 1987.
There’s also a pleasant charm to be had in the compatibility of the underlying messages. On the one hand the ending is a mawkish festival of “but we need to put aside our differences and work together.” On the other hand this is exactly how social alliances for the purposes of community organization work – people come together on the basis of shared goals like improving their living areas or not being murdered by evil cleaning robots. Yes, there’s the vague threat of bathos that risks making the serious and important point about what effective action in the face of totalitarianism is look like cheap sentimentality, but it’s a relatively minor risk. For the most part it comes off.
The easiest way to put this is that Paradise Towers gets away with being Ballard for kids. But this undersells what it accomplishes. It’s not just kid-friendly Ballard, it’s a new take on what Ballard is doing. The introduction of children’s television isn’t just a shift in audience, it’s a materially new perspective on the concepts that deserves to be taken seriously on its own merits and terms.
In the end, to criticize Paradise Towers we have to suggest that children’s television adaptations of Ballard that are about the failures of modernism is a bad thing. We can certainly make that case if we want to, but frankly, if that’s not something you’re interested in it’s not entirely clear why you’re watching Doctor Who in the first place. Stories like this are why I blog.
Is Paradise Towers flawless? God no. Everything it does well will be done better in at least one of the next ten stories. But more importantly, nothing it does well has been done in Doctor Who for years at this point, if it’s ever been done at all. It’s at once a clear return to the actual legacy of what Doctor Who used to be – its purpose, as opposed to its iconography – and a genuinely new take that’s bang on target for the year its airing in.
This is, in other words, it. The moment where Doctor Who turned it around. We’re now in an eleven story run where quality is the norm and disasters are an aberration, and, at a minimum, a ten year run in which Doctor Who is consistently good with regular outbreaks of genius. We’re finally at a point where the show is not only brilliant again, but one where the trajectory from here to the present day is, save for one brief but calamitous downturn in the mid-90s, one of almost constant improvement.