The Commodity Strikes Back
Thoughts on ‘Planet of the Ood’
A very beautiful episode to look at. A stark pallet of whites and blues and greys, the exterior scenes harshly bathed in cold light… counterpointed by the dark warehouses and the red haze of the Ood rage.
Series 4 continues its apparent intent of readdressing moral lapses on the part of the Doctor/show. The inexcusable laxity of the treatment of slavery in ‘The Satan Pit’ (and the invisibility of the issue in the preceding episode) gets repudiated here. Big time.
Some would rather have had a story about a race that actually did crave servitude… but J. K. Rowling has already given the nation that sort of thing with her innately and happily subservient House Elves. And I don’t believe a sentient life form could evolve that wanted to be a commodity. Indeed, to even suggest such a thing may be to fundamentally misunderstand what consciousness is.
This may be a straightforward polemical tale, but there’s nothing wrong with that. This is about ruthless, corporate capitalism exploiting people that it sees as nothing but a resource to be used. Sentient beings cut and sliced and spliced into shape as customisable toys and then packaged, branded, priced-up and shipped out in boxes. People in pacakaging. The gimmicks with their voices say it all: it’s like changeable novelty mobile-phone covers only with people.
This is a parable about commodification. About people turned into products and merchandise. About how relationships between living people become like relationships between things through the logic of the market. Halpen is, in his way, as much a victim of the commodification syndrome as the Ood. We see glimmers of decency in him, not least when he sends Ood Sigma back to his people. But he’s trapped within the logic of the impersonal system. Like the PR girl who – oh joy, oh bliss – does NOT have a yawnsome “crisis of conscience” but does her job, stays within the psychological confines of the system and stays true to her corporate loyalties. The PR/marketing slime in the hospitality lounge are as lobotomised as the Ood. Sharp suits and empty heads and crippled consciences.
Mr Halpen’s ultimate comeuppance is to become the thing he owned and traded in. That amazing gore moment that also, through the context, manages to be poetic, beautiful and moving. And satisfying. It’s a fantasy, but a pleasing one. Let’s put together a chain-gang starring Warren Buffet, Phil Nike, Rupert Murdoch, etc. See how those bastards like being at the bottom of the pile. Maybe sometimes, empathy must be imposed.
The episode does not flinch from showing the brutality or the necessity or the moral justifiability of violent revolt. No patronising sermons to the oppressed about non-violence.
The Doctor’s remark to Donna – “who do you think made your clothes?” – was quite startling at the time. Under most circumstances, such little eruptions in mainstream drama can be accounted for as mere twinges of liberal guilt… but in a story like this one, which explicitly endorses violent revolution… well, it seems to have a bit more integrity than that. Lawrence Miles has frequently criticised this scene for allowing Donna to snap back at the Doctor for being self-righteous… but she’s right to. Firstly, on a character level, it would make no sense for Donna to immediately simper with middle class liberal guilt. Secondly, where does the Doctor get off saying that so self-righteously? Who made his clothes? Who made mine, for that matter? And is agonising about this issue really the answer to anything? The Doctor’s remark is smug and superior. It’s left to others to go beyond that sort of thing and actually, physically smash the system.
Again, this isn’t a question of villainy, but nor is it about collective guilt. In this story, even the human workers are parasitic upon the bondage of the Ood. They can be brutalised by their situation – below some, above others – into becoming whip-weilding fascist bullies.
But the Ood are not just the impoverished people of the third world, corralled in EPZs. They are also the product itself, the commodity system itself, coming back for revenge, biting the hands that produce it.
There are many Doctor Who aliens that are ‘product monsters’. Machines, toys, statues, scarecrows, dolls, computers, shop window dummies. Manufactured things that become alive and autonomous and hostile. The Ood are the same thing in reverse. The Autons are the products that come alive. The Ood are the living things made into products.
They reflect what the commodity system does. The company cuts away the part of the Ood that makes them free individuals…. In their state of nature they have evolved to be communal, social, mutually aiding (not because they’re angels but because their fragility makes them rely upon each other… as it was with humans in pre-class societies). The Company treats them as raw material, as a resource to be exploited. It slices into them and turns them into market fodder. But isn’t that what “The Company” (in all it’s forms) ALWAYS does, to both the wage-slaves and the consumers? The logic of the Company makes Mr Halpen into an anxious, scared, guilty self-interested utility-maximiser. In a system of generalised commodification, everyone has to have their brain cut into. There’s a bit of us missing if we’re prepared to tolerate other people being bought and sold.
Another thing I love about this episode is that the Doctor is not the hero. He doesn’t free the Ood. They free themselves… with a bit of help from a brave anarchist infiltrator. That this aspect should come in for such stick is rather telling. People would be more comfortable with the Doctor as a saviour/messiah, even if he must lead a revolution. Seeing him simply watch as the oppressed free themselves makes people worry.
Here, the Doctor isn’t a tiresome champion, just a sympathetic onlooker. The Ood’s gratitude at the end seems like a non sequitur… but perhaps they’re just grateful for his and Donna’s friendship, for their willingness to treat them as people. That is, after all, their goal: to be treated as people again, rather than as things, toys, tools or commodities.
March 11, 2012 @ 9:33 am
"Maybe sometimes, empathy must be imposed."
That's… kind of a bit scary and brutal.
Anyway, you can't put Rupert Murdoch in a chain gang. He's far too old.
March 11, 2012 @ 10:26 am
You're right. The American Civil War, for instance, was VERY scary and brutal.