|I wonder if I could have slipped in the Ingrid Bower
version of Kronos or the Hosts from Voyage of the Damned
and had anybody fail to notice…
It’s October 29th, 1977. Baccara, a Spanish vocal duo that represented Luxembourg in the 1978 Eurovision contest with a song entitled “Parlez-vous français?,” are at number one with “Yes Sir I Can Boogie.” This moment of utter nationalistic confusion is short-lived, and ABBA take over with “Name of the Game” one week later and hold it through the end of this story. Rod Stewart, Queen, The Carpenters, The Bee Gees, and the Sex Pistols also chart. The latter also has their memorably titled “Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols” come out the day before the first episode of this story airs.
In other news, Harvey Milk is elected City Supervisor of San Francisco. Anwar Sadat visits Israel, while General Hugo Banzer, leader of the military government in Bolivia, moves the date for the transition back to a constitutional democracy up two years to 1978. (In practice this would go poorly when Banzer’s supporters attempted to steal the election.) And Greek archeologist Manolis Andronikos locates the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
While on television, Doctor Who spins its wheels. I’m not entirely convinced that the 1970s actually have a story less likely than this one to evoke strong opinions in people. Nobody loves it. Nobody hates it. It’s pretty much the third best story in the weakest season of the 70s, and that’s about what there is to say. Tat Wood’s defense of it in About Time amounts to “well it’s better than The Daemons,” which is true enough, but hardly inspiring. Lawrence Miles dislikes the tell-don’t-show style of the exposition. And most of the online reviews are masterpieces of the “a little good, a little bad” formula of reviews. And at 73rd place on the Doctor Who Magazine Mighty 200 poll, it seems like “a little good, a little bad” is pretty much the default consensus.
Watching it, it’s easy enough to see why. Much like The Invisible Enemy, this is heavily Doctor Who by Numbers. Unlike The Invisible Enemy, though, it’s Chris Boucher writing, and he’s good enough to avoid massive embarrassment. Even still, of his three scripts for the series it’s very difficult to muster anything like an argument that this isn’t his weakest. Whereas The Face of Evil was a thrilling deconstruction of the entire series and The Robots of Death was a particularly adroit and complex genre piece that commented extensively on its parent genre, this is… a very good rewriting of Quatermass.
The reasoning is simple enough. As with The Invisible Enemy before it, this is a story that’s trying to avoid ruffling any feathers. It’s in the horror mode that’s familiar to Doctor Who, but even this is largely defanged, with the violence actively kept off-screen. There are a few good scares, but for the most part this looks like what it is – a horror script that people are trying to tone down. Williams is still trying to make traditional Doctor Who without upsetting people, and while he doesn’t miss here, he doesn’t really hit anything either.
Part of it is that this Von Danniken-style plot is showing its age. Far from being a creative and exciting frisson of science fiction and established culture, at this point it’s just a sort of tiresome recitation of cliches. Oh, a human-looking skull millions of years too old to be a human skull. I wonder what it could possibly be. About Time addresses this somewhat by making an argument that the nature of this thinking had shifted over the course of eight years. Specifically, the implicit lack of regard for historical cultures – a variation on the prejudices inherent in Leela’s character – was proving untenable as archeology revealed increasingly old and complex forms of human behavior. And so the trend, as Miles and Wood explain it, was towards explaining the oddities of contemporary human behavior in terms of how they made sense in historical situations – a case of the “history reiterates” logic we’ve been discussing for ages manifesting in the intellectual mainstream.
It’s a perfectly plausible explanation for how these signifiers have changed over the nearly seven years we’ve been tracking them, but Miles and Wood hit a wall when they try to apply it to this story. The best they can come up with is that Boucher “came up with a neat, all-encompassing theory which happens not to be true, jus to show how easy it is to ‘account’ for all of human nature.” But while Boucher is not as much the arch-rationalist as some people (including at times himself) make him out to be, it’s still a bit of a reach to believe that he’d make a move like that. It’s not, after all, as though the story contains anything other than its basic fictionality that would make it a comment on the believability of untrue things.
Despite this, there is something to Miles and Wood’s point worth exploring. They are, after all, right about the way in which the Von Dannikenism is different in this story than it had been in past stories. In this story things are explained not in terms of alien cultures directly influencing us – the Osirans becoming the Egyptian gods, for instance, or the Daemons’ science becoming our magic – but in terms of our reacting against an alien race. The Fendahl is purely animalistic in a way past ancient aliens weren’t, serving not as models or influences but as an ancient monster that humanity has forgotten how to be properly afraid of. The superstitions that the story looks at are largely reactions against the Fendahl, and where the Fendahl has an active plan it seems to have achieved it through subtle manipulation of the entire arc of history as opposed to through any direct interaction with people.
In other words, what’s interesting here isn’t the breadth of what can be explained but rather the sorts of explanations. The Fendahl is something we haven’t really seen before: a monster that is, in a literal sense, history itself. The Fendahl is the teleology that history has been progressing towards. No wonder it’s one of the ancient and mythic enemies of the Time Lords and a species they apparently overtly attempted the genocide of.
It should be noted, however, that this plot point does not make a damn bit of sense. The last thing the Time Lords appear to be are scrupulous record-keepers, given the number of times they’ve been taken by surprise, had key files stolen, or had no idea what was going on with their own history. On top of that, the Time Lords are usually disdainful or unaware of the existence of Earth, which is rather strange for a planet so close to the site of their genocide. At this point it is increasingly becoming necessary to just stop trying to reconcile the various claims about the nature of the Time Lords. Three of the six stories this season feature Time Lords or Time Lord history as major plot points, and the number of distinct perspectives on the Time Lords may well be even greater.
But even if the Time Lords can no longer reliably be treated as the keepers of the arc of history (or as anything other than a plot contrivance to turn the volume on a story up to eleven), the basic ideas underlying that interpretation of them have, by this point, become deeply entrenched in the program’s DNA. Even if it doesn’t quite parse in relation to the rest of the series, the basic idea of a threat that is literally a force of history is compelling. Sufficiently so that the appearance of the Fendahleen ends up not even being the most Freudian thing about this story. The Fendahl is the death drive itself – not a phenomenon of history but an engine of it.
In other words, on paper this is another very sensible development of the ideas of the Hinchcliffe era. But in execution, none of the potential of this idea comes through. And to a large extent, it fails to come through in a way that helps us clarify what the damage done by Mary Whitehouse was. The Hinchcliffe era was packed with ideas, yes, but the end point of those ideas was usually their uncanniness. This was central to what the show did in the Hinchcliffe era. It avoided establishing its own clear ideology in favor of a Situationist style of critique whereby it juxtaposes various stories, genres, and historical idioms in such a way as to produce uncanny and lurking horror. It was tremendously effective at that.
But, crucially, it only worked because of the uncanny and lurking horror. The Hinchcliffe era wasn’t just intellectual masturbation with high concepts, it was an exploration of the nightmares that lurk within cultural memory. The fear wasn’t just a handy tool to hook kids, it was part and parcel of the overall effect. And so when you make a story like this in such a way as to spend more time fretting over exactly how to shoot Stael’s suicide than over the storytelling – trying, in essence, to make it less disturbing and less memorable, you lose something.
And so in an odd sense, Image of the Fendahl reveals the problems with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era (since this is Robert Holmes’s last story as script editor, at least in production order) even better than the racism of Talons did. Without a fully satisfying and developed sense of uncanny horror this story has nothing to fall back on but its ideas. And its ideas are… limited. I mean, don’t get me wrong – a monster that is the death drive is brilliant. But the execution…
See, Miles and Wood point something out about this story that’s a massive and glaring error. The Fendahl skull was supposedly found in Kenya. Human civilization also came out of Africa. But every single cultural trope that is explained in terms of the Fendahl – triskaidekaphobia or the use of salt for ritual protection – is a European cultural trope. This is just grotesque in its cultural imperialism. But more to the point, it just undermines and sandbags the entire story. If the story is about the ideas of cultural history and the death drive and the ancient development of humanity then the last thing you want to do is steamroll the bulk of the planet and treat it like the whole world is British. I mean, it’s just crass. (Ironically, this is the sort of thing that the Williams era will later become obsessed with – avoiding showing any planet as a monoculture.)
This, however, is symptomatic of a larger problem. Drained of the uncanny and uncomfortable horror, this approach of broadly playing with ideas loses its postmodernism and becomes an Enlightenment liberalism master narrative about establishing what all of humanity is like. And any such narrative is mostly just going to end up further solidifying the relationship between those who have power and are telling the story and those that exist on the margins. Of course when the BBC does a story about the fundamental nature of humanity it’s horrifyingly Eurocentric. Anyone’s story about the fundamental nature of humanity is going to put themselves at the center of it. This game becomes masturbatory fast, and not in ways Boucher seems to be making any sort of commentary on.
When the things we find exploring the concepts are dark and obscure horrors then this sort of universalizing works. There is something deeply and unsettlingly compelling about placing one’s self in the center of the universe and then seeing that the universe is full of nightmares. But the approach simply does not work when you bend over backwards to avoid upsetting anybody. And through and through, Image of the Fendahl seems uninterested in pushing its audience.
Clearly some new approach has to be found. But, frankly, what? How can Whitakerian alchemy, in all its anarchic and mercurial glory, possibly work in a manner designed not to offend and not to upset? How, in short, do you create a domesticated and friendly sort of anarchist? Especially in a world where the glorious and willful ugliness of punk is rapidly and effectively expanding. This is in no way an easy aesthetic question, and frankly, it would take a genius to find a way forward out of all of this.
Good thing Doctor Who still has one of those around.