…ish is one of those pieces that is desperate for you to recognize how clever it is, which would be irritating if it weren’t so damned clever. Indeed, it’s sufficiently clever that an irritating number of reviewers seem to think that this is a lot of clever presentation wrapped around an overly simple story. This, however, involves an unfortunate confusion of plot with story. The plot is standard Doctor Who fare – an expedition to an alien planet inadvertently collects something… evil. It escapes back among the humans and threatens to cause untold devastation. After uncovering malfeasance among the people who went on the expedition the Doctor stops the evil thing and saves the day. As basic as they come, really.
The only tricky bit, really, is that the “something evil” is, in fact, a word and that the nature of the threat is the complete collapse of all language and meaning. The word – referred to as the “ish” – destroys meaning itself – as, of course, does the suffix itself. The threat is that the ish will be unleashed into the Omniverbum, which is essentially the Word of “in the beginning was the” fame.
It’s just that this tricky bit causes the story to extend considerably beyond the straightforward plot. It also, however, enables a mass of cleverness, some of which is oft-noted and some of which is less so. The most obvious thing to observe is that this is a story that required Baker’s Doctor. One of the key characteristics of Baker’s Doctor is a degree of pomposity. Unfortunately, as Tat Wood rather cuttingly observed in About Time, this tends to manifest such that Baker comes off as a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person is like. Which is to say that the writers had an irritating tendency to write with the thesaurus open such that Baker’s Doctor displays a certain… ludicrous logorrhea, if you will. (The trait is, of course, compounded when Pip and Jane Baker are writing for him, since their tendency is to write everybody verbosely to begin with.)
So for a story that is about words and language there was really only one Doctor to choose. And the story is littered with bits of wordplay and what is less continuity porn than continuity erotica – a bevy of jokes that are both terribly obscure and utterly artful. (An impossibly large encyclopedia volume beginning with DAL, for instance. Or a Delphon joke.) There’s also a rampant set of jokes referencing post-structuralist literary theory – several bits of dialogue are straight lifts from major postmodernist thinkers. (I caught at the very least a Lacan and a Deleuze reference) This is also a compelling bit of timing. The era this story is set during was the real breakout of postmodernism, both in popular culture and in academia, and a story that is about postmodern literary theory is a natural fit – a story that on the one hand would never have been made in the era itself, but on the other still speaks to the cultural concerns of the era.
But there is one bit of cleverness in the course of the story worth dissecting a little bit. At one point it’s suggested that the renegade word is bigger on the inside. And more to the point, as soon as this is established both the Doctor and Peri stop being able to remember the word “TARDIS.” The obvious implication is that the ish has, at this point, consumed the idea of the TARDIS and rendered the very conception of the series meaningless.
Actually, calling this an implication is overstating the subtlety a bit. The narration has Professor Osefa, or, at least, a hologlyphic (not holographic, crucially) representation of her describe the Doctor’s wit and language, and to speculate as to what would happen if he met a foe that was of language and thus not susceptible to it. So the story is overtly in the realm of that old favorite genre of ours, narrative collapse.
So to recap, narrative collapse works relatively straightforwardly. The story introduces a threat that not only endangers something like the universe or the Doctor’s life, but that endangers the basic ability to tell Doctor Who stories in the first place. Then, once it appears that the basic storytelling of Doctor Who has collapsed the Doctor figures out some clever way of cheating, breaking the rules, and restoring order. But in order to do so some sort of terrible price is extracted.
For some time we have been tracking the seeming price of a deferred narrative collapse. Season 22 seemed as though an exorcism, a spasmodic execution of the program’s accumulated flaws. And the major theme for next season is going to be the strange incoherence of the story – the bizarre incommensurability at the heart of The Trial of a Time Lord. But there is a missing element here. We’ve been tracing the effects of a narrative collapse without seeing the collapse itself.
Instead what we see is a whacking big hole – the Season 23 That Wasn’t. Or, as we may as well call it in the name of getting into the spirit of things, the Seasonish. Within this narrative space that is defined entirely by its absence there is, by implication, a narrative collapse. But the collapse is wholly emboited. But wait a moment. The Charged Vacuum Emboitement was the idea of a metaphor – a single unit that encompasses an entire universe. Here we have a strange inversion. Instead of the narrative collapse serving as a metaphor for the turmoil that led to the Seasonish we have the Seasonish serving as a metaphor for an emboited narrative collapse.
In other words, one of the supposed fundamental principles of narrative has unexpectedly given way. We are used to narrative serving up metaphors for the real world. To see this inverted – for reality to begin actively to serve as a symbolic container for narrative effects – is uncanny. But not, crucially, unprecedented The nature of television, as pointed out in the very first episode, is emboitement – the enclosure of a larger space within a small box. Television is itself the real symbol containing narrative effects. But typically that is what defines television – i.e. what sets it apart from everything around it. It’s the real thing that emboits narratives.
But in the Seasonish it comes to confront an equally compelling concept: alchemy. The secret of alchemy is material social progress, but this is really just a restatement of the already asserted premise of alchemy: as above, so below. If we take Doctor Who as an alchemical television show then it is uniquely capable of the magic trick we’re seeing here. If television emboits narrative space and Doctor Who is a narrative space defined by the principle that “as above so below” then Doctor Who is, in fact, a narrative space that can emboit anything. (As I said at the start, all stories are Doctor Who stories. Not for nothing is he the renegade Master of the Land of Fiction)
The relevance of …ish, obviously, is that it provides the lost narrative collapse by inserting itself into the Seasonish as one of the conspicuously absent stories. But in this regard it is key to note that …ish is not a television story. It’s an audio play. Television is an emboited medium, but radio/audio is not. Television encloses its narrative space, but radio expels it, pushing its narrative out into the world. And more to the point, it does so into a space that is completely unbounded. There is no physical box into which audio-based narrative is compressed. The only limiting factor to the physical size of the audient void is transmission itself – the length of the chain of molecules vibrated by the sound wave. As long as the text is reiterated it can grow infinitely.
And so …ish provides the perfect vector for this inversion of the order of things. By positioning the lost narrative collapse of the Seasonish in audio instead of television …ish provides the means of Doctor Who’s ultimate survival. If the preceding few years have been the story of how Doctor Who was driven off a cliff, the next four provide the story of how Doctor Who was put into a position where it would someday return, and return not as a reanimated corpse but as a genuine continuation of a particular line of thought and storytelling. If we attempt to treat …ish as a component of the Seasonish – and the nature of the Seasonish is that it readily can include an ahistorical phenomenon like …ish within it – then we find a moment that symbolically justifies Doctor Who’s cheating of the narrative collapse of 1989.
I do not mean this only in terms of Doctor Who’s sneaking out the back door of its own medium to survive in other forms and wait patiently for its return. I also mean that the issues that …ish addresses are going to turn out to be crucial over the remaining sixteen Doctor Who stories in terms of how the series moves rapidly from the smoldering trainwreck of the Baker years to a concept that has real and serious legs. Taken as a rewriting of time, …ish serves an explanatory function not in terms of the particulars of Doctor Who continuity but in terms of the basic conception of what Doctor Who is.
Another one of the basic premises of postmodernism is that all discourse is additive. The double negative may be logically equivalent to the positive, but as someone once said, logic is a new toy. On a more basic level contradiction and rejection is still an additive process. “Not X” requires the conception of X in addition to its rejection. “Not Not X” adds further. This is what laymen fail to recognize about deconstruction – it’s not a plunge into nihilism but rather a plunge into a reckless surplus of meanings. By tearing something down into component parts and looking at the absurdities generated we do not mean to leave the thing taken apart and non-functional. Rather we mean to prompt the creation of further concepts – we mean progress. (The other thing people fail to realize about deconstruction and postmodernism is who we’re trying to fool. Ourselves, mainly.)
It is telling, then, that the Doctor’s specific cheat to defeat the ish is to employ the gaps and ambiguities of language as the Doctor and Peri attack it with differences between American and British speech. In other words, the ish is finally foiled by the slipperiness between a word and its meaning – the very slipperiness that fuels postmodernism. Put another way, faced with a seemingly inescapable dualism between the word that would encompass the whole of creation into a single fixed thing (the omniverbum) and the word that would destroy all meaning (the ish), and, more crushingly, faced with the prospect that these are actually the same thing, the Doctor’s solution is to play word games. The Doctor survives through the idea that continued use of language is self-sustaining and always creates new things to escape both extremes of fixity.
And in doing so, symbolically, he makes the switch between the two ends of the narrative collapse – the grotesque exorcism of Season 22 and the chaotic rebirth of Season 23. Which, since there’s going to be a lot to do over the course of Season 23, we may as well start setting up here. Season 23 does not make a lot of sense. Or, perhaps more accurately, it makes a wild excess of sense. Over the course of the fourteen episodes so many different things are implied, suggested, and gestured towards that the results are impossible to square away with anything at all, least of all Trial of a Time Lord itself. The result falls visibly short of “good,” but is nevertheless such a massive chunk of concepts as to be strangely essential. Even though no televised Doctor Who stories since Trial of a Time Lord have once mentioned or referenced any of its ideas it remains influential simply because of their sheer mass.
But it is terribly, terribly muddled and confused. And so, as a result, is the approach to it (hence this entry). And, for that matter, the transition from it to the next thing that appears to be a coherent era of Doctor Who – hence, not to get horribly far ahead of ourselves, the head-scratching nature of Season 24. And so if the ideas on either side of it are a mess, one can only imagine what the inside of it must be like.
(For our purposes, the answer is “less self-parodic than this, but complex nevertheless.”)