Wrong With Authority (The Sun Makers)
|It’s Marlon Brando playing Professor X!|
It’s November 26, 1977. ABBA remain at number one with “Name of the Game,” but are overtaken by Wings with “Mull of Kintyre,” a Paul McCartney-penned ode to Scotland that will manage a nine week run at #1 that will keep it in place through Christmas and, indeed, through the next story. Queen, the Bee Gees, and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band also chart.
In real news, British Airways establishes regular Concorde service between New York and London. The International Fund for Agricultural Development is established at the UN. The President of the Central African Republic declares himself emperor, and in the US the cable channel Nickelodeon launches, albeit under its original name of Pinwheel, which would last about eighteen months before the channel relaunched as Nickelodeon.
While on television we have Robert Holmes, frequent genius and occasional cynical dick, penning his departure script. This was actually filmed prior to Image of the Fendahl, which was the script Holmes actually departed during, with Anthony Read picking up midway through. But in running order it serves to continue the spurious tradition Dicks cited of the outgoing script editor getting a script on or around his departure date. (Actually, as I noted at the time Dicks pulled the trick on Holmes, the tradition was kind of real. In practice, Dicks was the seventh regular script editor of Doctor Who, and four of his six predecessors got a writing credit in the story after they left.)
The Sun Makers is a bit of an odd duck. Much like The Horror of Fang Rock, it is a story that it is currently very much trendy to enjoy. But whereas Fang Rock is very much a rediscovered classic that everyone now appreciates, The Sun Makers serves as more of a shibboleth – a story used to determine whether someone is a trendy Doctor Who fan or simply a traditionalist spouting received wisdom. Real fans love this story as an overlooked classic.
Except, of course, the problem with trendy classics is that there quickly becomes the countertrend. Now that everyone knows to revere The Sun Makers as an inadvertent triumph for Robert Holmes, the trendy thing to do is to complain about it. The easiest way to do this is to be political about it, which is easy enough if you’re a leftist nut job like me. Because this story is overtly a political satire about the horrors of taxes. And if you, say, happen to live in a country where one of the two political parties is stringently opposed to any tax increases whatsoever even though the tax rates are at a near historic low and even though this is one of the two major reasons for a massive budget deficit… well, it’s just kind of hard to get excited about a story that rails against the evils of taxation.
This is not quite fair, though. First of all, a blanket position that taxes are always good is as ludicrous as the belief that cutting taxes is always a good idea. The relationship between taxation and the economy is very complex and does not reduce well into a position that they should always go up or always go down. This, of course, bodes poorly in a two party system in which one gets to vote for, essentially, a lever to push them up or down instead of for an actually coherent plan. In reality, of course, there is such a thing as excessive taxation, just like there’s such a thing as insufficient taxation. To claim that it is impossible for taxes to be an unjust is simply absurd. I have no idea whether the tax situation Robert Holmes was pissed about – an issue having to do with the government treating him as having two jobs when he was simultaneously script-editing and writing Doctor Who in Season Fourteen – was, in fact, excessive and unfair. But it’s certainly possible that it was. Injustices of this sort happen, including in the criminally under-taxed US. (Ours is called the Alternative Minimum Tax – a measure put into place to snag the very rich who were using deductions to reduce their tax burden to nothing that slowly crept/was pushed by the Reagan administration to arbitrarily whacking middle class families.)
But even if it wasn’t, the topical snarking about taxes is just a specific occasion for a more fundamental sort of moral critique. Holmes may be a misanthropic, petty cynic, but even he wouldn’t write a story that’s just about his tax problems. And so there has to be a broader issue in this story, and it’s one that gives it an altogether more sympathetic viewpoint. Some time ago, in comments, I made the assertion that Robert Holmes was a liberal’s conservative. This, more than just about any other Holmes script, demonstrates the point; this isn’t really a story about taxation. It’s a story about exploitative labor conditions that borders on the overtly Marxist. Taxes may be what the company’s exploitation of the population is called, but let’s pause for a moment and look at exactly how Pluto works. This is a story about a private company that runs the city and is seeking to make a profit by recklessly overcharging citizens for everything.
This is not a story about taxation. It’s a story about the greed of the powerful, and specifically the greed of businesses. The scene at the start about death taxes (with its wickedly funny moment in which Cordo’s father’s life savings are not worth as much as the value of his corpse) feels much more like the moment when Bank of America refused to reverse some overdraft charges that happened because my mother forgot to transfer money from another Bank of America account until two hours after the nightly deadline because my father had had a massive stroke the night before than it does like any interaction I’ve had with the government or an accountant.
But more broadly, the real moral hook of this story is the fact that the population of Megropolis One is forced to work themselves to death. It’s the fact that the people are seen as nothing more than disposable labor sources with no value beyond their material production. It’s not a story about unfair tax surprises that screw people over, it’s a story about a world where no amount of work will ever make ends meet because the rich and powerful want more. And this is why Holmes is a liberal’s conservative. One of the fundamental tenets of contemporary liberalism is Carol Hanisch’s famous observation that “the personal is political.” (In this regard, all of contemporary liberalism is essentially just a subset of feminism.) And that is at the heart of this story. The nature of the oppression isn’t the focus. Holmes is writing a story about the way in which an oppressive economic system ruins individual lives. Hence the amazing opening scene in which Cordo is put into debt slavery over his father’s death taxes. The sadism of this scene transcends the fact that it’s about an evil tax collector. It’s about the way in which the system bullies and destroys people for its own benefit. And it culminates in the most emotionally charged moment Holmes has ever written in the scene in which Cordo, despairing at his inability to ever pay off his debts, attempts suicide.
The sheer power of this hook to draw the Doctor into the plot – a man beaten down by the system to the point where he tries to kill himself – gives this story a screaming moral charge. The entire moral foundation of this story comes not out of a philosophical argument about the appropriate level of taxation, nor out of a cranky writer who got screwed by Inland Revenue, but out of a single man’s humiliation and shame at being unable to make it in the world. And the story builds from that to a media savvy revolution in the grand workers rebellion sense. The Doctor shows up and overthrows the government because it’s a bunch of bullying profiteers using bureaucracy to justify torture. And because they drove a man to suicide. This is the most Occupy movement friendly story to date in Doctor Who. It is an anarchist screed. And it goes to incredibly dark, furious places – the story ends with the Gatherer who drives Condo to suicide being thrown off the roof by an angry mob. It’s an unrepentantly populist scream of rage at a method of oppression.
How the hell did the show get away with it at this point in its history?
Miles and Wood begin their review of the story by noting that the story is generally considered “rushed, padded, often cheap-looking and stocked with tedious minor supporting characters, but also written by Robert Holmes so ultimately quite good anyway.” Which captures most of the key adjectives, but manages to get them in completely the wrong order. Yes, this is another cheap-looking story – most of them will be for quite a while now. But it’s also the point in which Doctor Who really starts to figure out how to be cheap and silly without being trivial.
See, there are some advantages to cheapness. Simply put, it lowers the stakes. It makes the show look harmless. If Doctor Who was going to be publicly ordered to be less serious then it may as well look cheap. Poof. Problem solved. It is now not serious. This is, in many ways, its ultimate budget saving trick. When confronted with crushingly bad budgetary restrictions, just give up on looking like a serious or responsible show. You don’t even try to take yourself seriously. And then once you’ve done that you can just pick up the marginalized subcultures handbook and turn to the section on “camp.” Then flip to “black humor.” It’s a very standard technique – one of the classics of the avant garde. You pitch your most subversive stuff in the most innocuous container. To some extent this is what Hinchcliffe did, slipping horror into children’s television where nobody was looking. But here we have it in a bigger form – cheap and silly children’s television that doubles as anarchist agitprop. With a dopy robot dog, just to make sure nobody accidentally takes it seriously without getting the joke.
Obviously we’re spinning a sow’s ear into a purse to a kind of ridiculous extent with this theory. There is a whiff of the implausible here in excess even of my alchemical interpretations of Whitaker, if only because there’s an air of desperation to this theory. It’s in many ways a frantic effort to find a way out of the mire the show seems to be sinking into over its last two stories (and to some extent, as good as Fang Rock is, its last three). I mean, who’s going to actually decide to take the facts that the show has been offensively defanged and that its budget has evaporated entirely and throw them back in the world’s face while bellowing a subversive scream about anti-capitalist revolution? Who would be cynical and bitter enough to do that?
Ah. Right. Robert Holmes.
He is, for all that I’ve said about him, one of the greats. He’s already invented two eras of Doctor Who and helped close out another. He was the creative vision of the show for its three best years thus far. And now, in his closing act as script editor, he finds a way forward for the show and reinvents it for a third time. And we’re not even close to done with his story. He still has another one of the key stories in the Williams era to do (and The Power of Kroll too), and then there’s a whole second act to his story.
But he is out as script editor here. His story continues, but this is the end of the part of it where his story and Doctor Who’s story coincided more or less completely. He’s supporting cast from now on. So this is a fine and proper place to do our account of him and his wizardry.
And he is one of the genuine wizards of Doctor Who – one who stands shoulder to shoulder with Whitaker and Troughton in terms of his contributions to the show’s alchemy. The most earthly and mundane of the wizards, yes, but anyone who has spent any time with the logic of mysticism knows, there is a peculiar sacredness to the mundane and the earthly. As Holmes himself showed us, the true secret of alchemy is material social progress. There are more elaborately esoteric metaphors for those who want them – this is catnip for anyone familiar with the Hermetic interpretations of the Tarot – but the point stands. There is much to be said for a mundane wizard.
For all that Holmes gets praise for his mundane and small-scale pieces – things like this and Carnival of Monsters – he’s equally adept at the epic, having done The Deadly Assassin and Pyramids of Mars. To treat him purely as a chronicler of the small scale is fundamentally untrue. What is true, however, is that he has no investment in the idea that the human scale and the epic scale are in some sense opposite. His epics are generally still based on the machinations and failings of mundane characters. The Ark in Space is perhaps the grandest example of this – a sweeping epic about the survival of humanity done as a claustrophobic character piece. And, of course, this is also the man who reinvented the Time Lords as squabblers bound by history. In many ways the heart of his genius is his ability to craft a small-scale epic – to craft an alchemy of the mundane.
Most accounts of Holmes pay considerable attention to his pre-television career, which included being Britain’s youngest commissioned officer in World War II (where he was stationed in Burma, giving context to the Matrix sequence of The Deadly Assassin), a stint as a police officer, and a stint as a journalist. The usual explanation is that this gave him a sense of the world – as if, say, Terrance Dicks’s time in the National Service and the advertising industry or Barry Letts’s time in the navy and life in the world of theater left them oblivious somehow. No, the easiest explanation for Holmes’s sense of characterization and humanity is not his pre-writing career but the fact that he’s a keen observer of human behavior. Or, to put it another way, he’s a good writer.
But there is something to be gleaned from his career history. It’s just not the thing that anyone talks about. Even I’ve been pretty harsh on Holmes for excessive cynicism. But look at the jobs he’s held. Even if we ignore the military stint on the grounds that anyone his age at that time would have fought in the war, his police career is clearly a form of public service. His journalism career, though not strictly speaking public service, is still a job with a clear commitment to the public good – a desire to improve the world and do good things. And while television writing is not quite so obviously such a career, even a cursory glance at Holmes’s self-depricating descriptions of himself will show that he is not seeking glory. He has a piece in Peter Haining’s The Doctor Who File in which he is relentlessly (and hilariously) dismissive of the idea that his writing is anything special.
Why, then, be a writer? Complete nihilism is difficult at best for a writer. Writing is such a solitary and extended process as to be nearly impossible without some belief that the result is going to have some impact. There’s something fundamentally utopian about the naive and fruitless belief that banging away at the keys can possibly be worthwhile. Holmes may have been a black-hearted cynic, but there is, in his writing, a nagging sense the he does actually care about making the world a better place.
What’s fascinating about Holmes, though, is that for him this doesn’t manifest as an investment in broad master narratives or structures of power that can do good. His view of social progress is miles from Malcolm Hulke’s belief that if only the science vicars took over we’d all be fine, or Terrance Dicks’s belief that good traditional British values will always triumph. He has a belief in the public good that is tempered with a worldly experience of its pettiness and its banal evils. His view is one of righteous anger. He may never display anything that even faintly resembles a commitment to justice, but he displays the best eye for injustice of anyone writing for the series in its first twenty years.
His eye is still imperfect, yes, leading to the frustrating bigotry of The Talons of Weng-Chiang and, to a lesser extent, The Time Warrior. And he has other frustrating blind spots. This story is yet another example of his fascination with disfigured or misshapen villains – a common enough trope in which villainy is externally represented, but one that ends up creating an uncomfortable equivalence between disability and malfeasance. It’s a small point, but it’s the sort of one that never occurs to Holmes, who has almost no interest in or understanding of cultural difference beyond class. (Which is, in the end, the biggest problem with Holmes – he only understands class politics.) But this story is also a bracing reminder of how good he is when he does get his teeth into something that outrages him. And when it comes to outrage, as they say, Robert Holmes is very well-balanced: he’s got a chip on both shoulders.
There are not a lot of ways in which Holmes and Whitaker are similar writers. But in this regard they’re deeply compatible. Whitaker made the Doctor into a mercurial alchemical figure. Mercury, alchemically speaking, has several traits: communication, speed, cleverness, traveling, etc. And the Doctor is compatible with basically all of them. But the biggest one is that mercury is changing. Mercury is eternally in flux. Mercury is anarchic.
And this captures Robert Holmes to a tee. As has been pointed out by many, this is a writer whose first story was about the Doctor mixing up acid to overthrow a repressive educational regime. He has always favored stories in which the old order is torn down. Mercury is a good element for the revolutionary spirit in this regard. Change is always a destructive process. And Holmes’s furious anger at the degradations of the world, which has always animated his best work, fuels a brilliant desire to just burn it all down. Once again Doctor Who shifts in step with the more anarchic subcultures, moving in beautiful sync with punk, which just had its mainstream validation four months previously as The Sex Pistols made their one and only Top of the Pops appearance.
Because this is fundamentally allied with the aesthetic and affective principles of punk. A raging and working class anger channeled through the avant garde aesthetics and philosophies of the Situationists. A righteous fury dressed too ridiculously to take seriously, but tossing a molotov cocktail all the same. Here is the counterpart to Patrick Troughton’s psychedelic anarchist – Tom Baker’s punk anarchist. Mere months after punk hits it big, Doctor Who steps in to be the first post-punk movement. (Which, to be fair, happened in the punk movement too – around the same time as this Siouxsie and the Banshees were referred to as post-punk in Sounds.)
So would Robert Holmes have come up with the idea to use the shoddiness of the show to disguise the sheer anarchic nature of its content? Yes. I believe he absolutely would have, and I believe he did. I believe this to be a conscious decision every bit as much as David Whitaker’s alchemical themes were conscious and Patrick Troughton’s acting style was conscious. This is Robert Holmes, punk sympathizer, dressing up Doctor Who in innocent clothing with full faith that the audience will catch the joke. And to his credit, plenty did, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Is it ideal? No. It’s tough to argue seriously that it wouldn’t have been nicer to stay in the many styles of subversive postmodernism that involve high production values. The sort of open and unapologetic shoddiness of this approach – this refusal to take itself seriously at all – is problematic. This is the program battling valiantly from the opposition when a year ago it had been imperious. But then, things have started darkening. The show’s values are going to be in the opposition for a long and ugly stretch soon. We can’t be mad at the show for making the best out of a very bad hand.
And for all of that, this is the starting gun on the parts of the Graham Williams era that people truly love, and rightly so. It’s the flowers in the dustbin. It’s the poison in the machine. There’s a future after all. Once more, when England’s dreaming, she’s dreaming of the Doctor.
December 5, 2011 @ 1:06 am
I can't help feeling that this article is largely based on very dubious academic analysis, which always aimed to shepherd punk into politically safe spaces many years after the fact. Punk was always marginal, sometimes fiercely so, but it may be I'll read with bewilderment in 30 years time that I've been living in the age of Babyshambles and that the cult of Amy Winehouse had something to do with the financial crisis. Thinking aloud: OK, you're right. RTD 1 – 4 is Britain under Blair, and The End of Time the farewell tour Phoney Toney never had. I can't think of anything Punk about Tom Baker. He certainly doesn't dress like one.
"This is the program battling valiantly from the opposition when a year ago it had been imperious. But then, things have started darkening. The show's values are going to be in the opposition for a long and ugly stretch soon."
Things have been dark for a while. It's inflationary wage demands, political fracture and polarization, industrial decline etc. Note how this long pre-dates Thatcher. I don't understand how the show's values are more in opposition from around this point on than they were at any time previously, or how the nature of this opposition differs from the inherently oppositional quality of any imaginative creative work.
The Sun Makers anticipates very well a complete corporatization of our world, a time when charges morph into taxes (they're only called taxes because the company has taken over governmental functions, so the Left have nothing to complain about on that point). Still, the ending is a bit of a cop out, and is replicated whenever there is a revolution: the West supplies good will and arms and promptly vanishes in a police box. In the real world, the insurgents start fighting amongst themselves, Veet starts sawing off heads, the machines break down, the Suns run out and everyone on Pluto dies. There were a few hundred thousand survivors, come to think of it, but still a tiny percentage of the original population. Most were eaten by the Wirrn, but a few thousand sold in slavery to the Daleks.
December 5, 2011 @ 1:59 am
One of the fundamental tenets of contemporary liberalism is Carol Hanisch's famous observation that "the personal is political." (In this regard, all of contemporary liberalism is essentially just a subset of feminism.)
Can you clarify what you mean by "contemporary liberalism"?
December 5, 2011 @ 3:54 am
I was going to ask the same as Iain. Liberalism has a far more specific meaning in the UK, but you seem to use the word in multiple, contradictory, USian senses.
December 5, 2011 @ 5:18 am
Well, it didn't take you long to address disability and disfigured villains after all. Thank you for bringing it up, especially in your most Holmes-centric post yet, but I do hope you flesh it out later as you hinted you might.
December 5, 2011 @ 5:43 am
"I can't think of anything punk about Tom Baker. He certainly didn't dress like one."
I'm usually content to read all your comments over the couple of days after each post, but I have to say something about this one. The whole point of Phil's blog, and what I love about it, is that its reading of Doctor Who is complex, multifaceted, deeply historically informed, philosophically interesting, and most importantly for this comment, not obvious.
Phil's using his own knowledge to tease out suggestions about the meaning of the show, or subtle intentions of some of its creators (like David Whitaker, Patrick Troughton, and in this case Robert Holmes) to create a detailed philosophical narrative of the show. This narrative is a counter-narrative to all the received wisdom in Doctor Who fandom, history, and scholarship. And I'll cite my favourite definition of received wisdom, from Gilles Deleuze: received wisdom = that which everyone already knows to be true, what is so intuitively obvious as not to be of any interest.
This to me is why Phil's account runs against the conclusions of fandom so often. His quote from Miles and Wood puts the received wisdom about Sunmakers clearly: "rushed, padded, often cheap-looking and stocked with tedious minor supporting characters, but also written by Robert Holmes so ultimately quite good anyway." That's just what's obvious about the show, and if he were to repeat that and let it be, no one would care about this blog because it wouldn't be interesting. Received wisdom is never interesting.
So to say that Tom Baker's Doctor isn't punk because he doesn't dress like one misses the whole point of why this blog exists. Of course it wouldn't be obvious that Baker's Doctor is a punk. As Phil spells out the punk aspects of the Doctor's character over the Williams era, we'll realize it fits perfectly with that Tom and rest of the production staff was doing. But we also never would have guessed it ourselves because it isn't obvious. That's what makes Phil interesting.
PS. And if I can plug myself here, this is what I wrote in my chapter of Open Court Press' Doctor Who and Philosophy where I interpret the first three years of the Davies era as turning the Doctor into a Nietzschean Overman. That book came out Xmas 2010, and is still available if you want to include a supplement to Phil's book that'll let you get free shipping on the order.
December 5, 2011 @ 6:10 am
A messy pile of answers and comments:
Yes, I used liberalism here in its vaguer American sense of being a synonym for "left-wing." "Contemporary liberalism" in this case was intended to be roughly synonymous with what I talked about as postmodern liberalism in the Mary Whitehouse entry.
Clearly Baker does not dress like a punk, but equally clearly Pertwee did not dress like David Bowie and Troughton did not dress like a hippie. I don't particularly see this as a big concern – clothing style is never the best cultural signifier for the Doctor. But the idea that punk was "always" marginal is ludicrous, I think. The always marginal doesn't get a #2 single or a Top of the Pops appearance. Those are pretty much the definition of "not marginal."
No, punk was one of the sanctioned subcultures I referred to in the Whitehouse entry – the phenomenon whereby the mainstream allows a "plurality" of viewpoints that really just amount to an accepted set of opposition views that can be "considered." What strikes me as interesting about punk, though, was that it was designed to be exactly this. The hippies truly believed that their psychedelic free love would eventually inspire everybody else to follow suit. Glam always believed it would be popular and massive successful. But Punk never really thought it would or could win. It knew it was going to be a disreputable subculture, and so it acted the part. It knew it would always be, at best, stuck in that space between marginal and mainstream. And so it got down to the business of figuring out what you could do from within that position that was interesting and new, updating the Situationist approach for the first time since 1968.
I think in that regard there is a fundamental similarity to the Williams era, which similarly gave up on being serious and instead got down to the business of figuring out what you could accomplish if you were blocked off from serious participation with the mainstream.
December 5, 2011 @ 6:17 am
Adam, I was trying to suggest that perhaps the most important thing about Punk is/was the clothes. That's not been received wisdom for quite a while. But let's not talk about Lady Gaga. I'm sure she'll come up later. 😉
December 5, 2011 @ 6:19 am
Tom – even if it is the clothes, surely that just circles around to Vivienne Westwood, who was aggressively Situationist, no?
December 5, 2011 @ 6:51 am
Well, the actual Pistols might disagree. Punk got a number 1 single really, but it was still marginal. You can be a marginal majority, even. And sure the mainstream tests out some lucky co-optees to see if their faces will fit a few years down the line (and John Lydon advertises great British butter these days – nowt wrong with that), but non-Metropolitan, regional, post-teen society registers it mostly as an unholy noise. Critical the difference between "considered" and merely "on the radar". It all got "considered" in musical scholarship a decade later. Crass did get interviewed on the Today programme, after all. But don't you have it the wrong way round? It was Malcolm McLaren who sought to promote punk to mainstream sucess, and he had the education.
What does Tom Baker dress as anyway? I really don't know. Jon Pertwee's outfit is equally mysterious, as I think you've mentioned.
December 5, 2011 @ 6:55 am
I think in that regard there is a fundamental similarity to the Williams era, which similarly gave up on being serious and instead got down to the business of figuring out what you could accomplish if you were blocked off from serious participation with the mainstream.
Very very sceptical about this. I can't think of any story apart from the Sunmakers this might conceivably apply to. We're heading to the age of Douglas Adams, and no way is he even non-mainstream, although as ever I look forward to your posts.
December 5, 2011 @ 7:14 am
I think it flickers, with mixed results, through both of the next two stories, actually. As for Adams, well, he's got a Pop Between Realities a week from Wednesday that will be picking up a fair few of these themes.
December 5, 2011 @ 7:19 am
This is not a story about taxation. It's a story about the greed of the powerful
Six of one…
December 5, 2011 @ 7:19 am
Yes, I used liberalism here in its vaguer American sense of being a synonym for "left-wing."
I thought that might be the case. It seemed that a clarification might be useful, given that I am not the only liberal political activist in the UK who comments on your blog. Our sense of liberalism centres around J. S. Mill rather than Carol Hanisch.
If you only mean to use "liberalism" as a synonym for "left wing", I'd suggest you might achieve greater clarity by simply using "left wing".
December 5, 2011 @ 7:21 am
I haven't done a proper survey of my word choice, but I would guess that, out of an effort to keep the vocabulary somewhat fresh, I tend to cycle through "liberal," "left-wing," and "progressive" as adjectives more or less indiscriminately throughout the blog. 🙂
December 5, 2011 @ 7:41 am
“I mean, I’d call the Bee Gees punks quite happily. Some of their songs, I could see the potential there for exploration that goes beyond the norm. They’d be horrified by that. Johnny Rotten loves the Bee Gees.”
Not that John Lydon is the Pope or anything, but still. OK, I think I'm warming your point about the Williams era.
December 5, 2011 @ 7:53 am
"What does Tom Baker dress as anyway? I really don't know."
I read somewhere (can't remember where) that Baker's original outfit was meant to suggest Toulouse Lautrec. I suspect actually it was very roughly patterned after Lautrec's posters of Aristide Bruant, who had the hat, a long scarf (though not that long) and the knee-high boots. It's definitely intended to give an impression of fin-de-siecle Parisian Bohemianism, anyway.
December 5, 2011 @ 8:01 am
If I were you I'd avoid using 'liberal' in that way, because a very large proportion of your audience is likely to use it differently. There's a huge overlap between members of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's main Liberal party, and Doctor Who fans, and at least four people who've commented here are Lib Dems (myself, Iain, Alex Wilcock and Millennium Elephant, though the latter no longer comments here). I wouldn't be surprised if there were many more.
The use of the word 'liberal' in the USian style to mean wishy-washy vaguely-nice-things-liking being-progressive-without-actually-meaning-anything-by-that moderation is something a lot of us get quite annoyed by, because it removes a word for an actual ideological viewpoint and attaches it to the absence of the same.
December 5, 2011 @ 8:57 am
"This is not a story about taxation. It's a story about the greed of the powerful, and specifically the greed of businesses."
I'm with Jesse on this. In the real world, the bulk of taxation is upwardly rather than downwardly redistributive, and the chief beneficiaries of taxation are the corporate elite (unsurprisingly, since they're in a better position than anyone else to influence a state monopoly). Which is why, in a sane world, anti-tax positions and anti-plutocracy positions would go together. (But, alas, modus tollens.)
December 5, 2011 @ 9:01 am
Is the liberalism of 'personal is political' here necessarily the same as the 'po-mo liberalism' of the earlier post? (It gets foggier if you equate the po-mo with 'contemporary'.) There's a fairly dominant strain of liberalism that's about letting the private well alone; I guess I'm thinking of someone like Rawls, with his idea of a liberal state which is neutral about the question of the good.
(I'm the third Adam to comment on this post. It's starting to look like a conspiracy.)
December 5, 2011 @ 9:10 am
There's also a sense of "political" that's broader than state action, so that one could favour either a neutral Rawlsian state or (better yet) no state and still be in favour of aggressive political activism in everyday life. See section 2 of this piece.
December 5, 2011 @ 9:27 am
I think that the postmodern liberalism I describe is currently the dominant mode of leftist politics that are doing anything of note. Certainly I think the Occupy movement, which I am inclined to see as the best leftist political movement going right now, is postmodernly liberal.
Is it equivalent to "the personal is political?" I think so. Or at least, I think that "the personal is political" is a fundamental aspect of its approach, which does seem to me to be based very heavily on the idea of telling individual stories and looking at how the mechanisms of power impact individuals.
BerzerkRL is also spot on to point out that the political is not merely about the state.
December 5, 2011 @ 10:08 am
I really enjoyed today's piece: A deft blend of one of my favourite Doctor Who stories from this era with one of my favourite things in general: 1970s and 1980s British Art-House Punk. Despite being both an enormous fan of the Williams era and a staunch ally of the Post-Punk movement I'd never made the conscious connection between the two, though I must have at some level because it feels very natural to fit the two together as you've done.
I don't have much to add to your breakdown of "The Sun Makers" other than to say your reconceptualization of it as an anti-corporatocracy parable instead of just a satire of taxation policies makes the story that much more rewarding and satisfying to watch for me. That sort of explicit narrative focus of The Doctor's revolutionary fire isn't something that has seen a lot of attention since stories like "The Romans", "The Space Museum" and "The Krotons" (of course another Holmes script). After reading this I'm very excited to see how you handle "The Happiness Patrol" and if you're going to do the Big Finish play "LIVE 34"…
One thing I will posit is a light revision/rephrasing to your analysis of marginalized discourse. Your main point seems to be that such discourse, here seen in Punk and the Graham Williams era, are fundamentally focused on accepting their oppressed position and doing the best they can within the limitations of their boundaries. While I agree that's probably technically true, I think the reality is a bit more subtle than that. I feel that, perhaps strangely, non-mainstream ideas and discourse are often intertwined with a kind of wild independence and freedom to experiment and innovate. Siouxsie Sioux always says that what she took away from the Punk movement most of all was not the music or countercultural zeitgeist, but the simple knowledge that someone such as herself could have the freedom to express herself and her ideas; That, in this environment, a poor working class girl had just as much right to a voice and a medium as anyone else, and that all she had to do was take the first step.
I've been grappling with this train of thought for awhile now, motly because it's central to something I'm writing about how Alice's character changes over the course of the two Lewis Carroll books and how certain contemporary writers have picked up on this clear thread present in especially Through the Looking Glass, but I think it's equally applicable here: Yes, marginalized opinions and lifestyles are, well, marginal, but there's another side to that: Just like Jo Grant, because they don't play by the rules they aren't bound by them and are free to do what they want without fear of repercussion or judgment and that's an incredibly liberating and empowering feeling.
And if I may throw in a quick defense of Robert Holmes (I can't believe I'm doing this considering how much I've railed against him in the past) but if he was, as you say, a "black-hearted cynic (like myself as well, I admit) that's only because, I presume he was bitterly unhappy and jaded with the way the world worked and did his best to make it better in his own small way. You don't have to be a giddy idealist to want to improve things. There's a word for people like us in TVTropes land: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheSnarkKnight
December 5, 2011 @ 11:09 am
I think it's important that, as you noted, "tax" is used in The Sunmakers as just The System's "single word we use to describe how we're mean to you". In practice it's not about George Harrison's 98% rate, it's about any despotism that considers itself enlightened, be it the British in Burma or Stalinism in Russia or the Cultural Revolution. In its emphasis of the alienness of the ruling classes (and their relatively non-ideological rule), it is much more about colonialism than Stalinism, but the indoor setting and the sullen bureaucracy make it more corporatist than colonial — an It Happened Here (which I will never stop talking about) for the 70s with Britain as East Germany.
But having said that about how this is more subtle than it's commonly given credit for, I still think of this as one of Robert Holmes's weakest scripts. And your broader discussion of his work is very useful as template for thinking why this should be. Basically, Holmes is not on the side of the bosses or the workers, the oppressors or the revolutionaries: he's on the side of the cops and the small business owners and the carnies who are just trying to get by. He doesn't believe in mass social uprisings, he believes in having a nice hot dinner and not getting killed by giant rats if you can manage it. He sets up a society so grotesque it has to be overthrown, but his heart isn't really in the alternative. Tom Watts has a fantastic first comment on this post, a vision of what happened after the Doctor left, and I think if Holmes could read it he'd agree with it entirely.
So you're left with a series of grotesque events, a nice central concept, but ultimately a problem too big for the Doctor to solve. His one-on-ones with the Collector don't have the force of his one-on-ones with Solon or the Master because the problem is the system, not a single baddie. As an idea, this is fine. As a story, I don't think this one works. So it's a good lead-in to the Graham Williams era, where there will be a lot more stories than in the Hinchcliffe era that (a) have an interesting hard sf concept and (b) don't work that well on screen. (The same could be said of a lot of Davison stories, so if you want to look on Talons as the start of the turning point to decline, this is a good end to that turning point).
One thing that strikes me, since you bring up Burma: I wonder how closely Holmes modeled himself on Orwell? Anyone know of any research on the subject?
December 5, 2011 @ 11:29 am
"It's a story about exploitative labor conditions that borders on the overtly Marxist." — I always do the two-comment thing, I know… but this raises an interesting point about vulgar Marxism versus "pure" Marxism that is interesting in the context of Robert Holmes. Marxism as a revolutionary force draws its power partly from the fact that the structure of ownership in a capitalist society means that workers don't have returned to them the full value of their inputs, and partly from the fact that a lot of people hate their bosses. The substance of Marxism is in the first part, but a lot of its energy comes from the second part. Hating your boss is universal (and, as Communist countries have shown, not confined to capitalist societies), but the context of the 70s makes this critique a critique that seems to come from the left. (These days there's a similar thing in the Middle East and Africa, where "we should stop the Americans treating our country as mainly a place for armed conflict about things that don't directly affect our lives" has ended up more directly linked to "we should adopt Sharia" than perhaps it should be).
All of which is just to say, generic youth / employee resentment, real and important than it is, isn't necessarily the same as Marxism.
This is illustrated nicely by The Moonbase, which I've just finished watching. The Macra Terror obviously maps better to the Sunmakers, but the striking thing in the Moonbase is that the controller on Earth is just a dick. He doesn't care about his employees, he just wants the weather fixed. In the 60s and 70s that was just how management was: the rhetoric of management was the rhetoric of being a dick to people. Somewhere around the Clinton era and the dotcom bubble this rhetoric changed, and now bosses are all like Harry from Spooks, or if they're dicks it's knowingly parodic. But back then the approach of the Sunmakers to management was entirely mainstream, and maybe that's why people focused on the slightly-original taxation angle rather than the anti-corporate meat.
December 5, 2011 @ 11:39 am
"Still, the ending is a bit of a cop out, and is replicated whenever there is a revolution: the West supplies good will and arms and promptly vanishes in a police box. In the real world, the insurgents start fighting amongst themselves"
But in the real world, the West doesn't actually leave in a police box; it generally hangs around sneakily supplying arms to the warring factions.
December 5, 2011 @ 11:45 am
When I was in grad school I used to run the Amnesty International table. I was always baffled at how right-wingers would come up and want to sign letters against left-wing dictatorships only, and left-wingers would come up and want to sign letters against right-wing dictatorships only — as though the colours of the oppressors' uniforms somehow made a difference to the worthiness of the victims.
Forgive me, but I can't help feeling a sense of deja vu when I see Doctor Who fans exclaiming with relief that it's ok to like "The Sun Makers" after all, because the exploitation that's being condemned is actually being done by the corporate wing of the ruling class rather than by the political wing of the ruling class.
December 5, 2011 @ 11:46 am
@BerserkRL: That's a pretty exciting bit of theory-fusion, so thanks for providing my fun reading for tomorrow morning. I'm not defending the Rawlsian idea of state neutrality, for what its worth. I just think we should give the man (and his ilk) credit as a, if not the most, prominent form of liberalism.
December 5, 2011 @ 11:55 am
"Marxism as a revolutionary force draws its power partly from the fact that the structure of ownership in a capitalist society means that workers don't have returned to them the full value of their inputs"
I can't resist adding: of course Marx got that idea from people who were a lot more pro-market/libertarian than he was (like Proudhon and Hodgskin), and which continued to be developed by pro-market/libertarian folks simultaneously with Marx (Andrews, Heywood, Spooner, Tucker, even Spencer in certain moods). So calling it a distinctively Marxist idea is a bit like saying that Stephenie Meyer invented angsty vampire/teen romance.
December 5, 2011 @ 12:02 pm
Yeah, in so far as that bit of the description was meant to be pure bit of Marxism, it was a pretty vulgar pure Marxism.
December 5, 2011 @ 12:16 pm
Despotism and injustice is despotism and injustice no matter what uniforms they wear. It's all authoritarianism and plutocracy and trying to add qualifiers to it just delays taking a stand, either by taking up arms or a pen. As The Cheshire Cat says in Alice: Madness Returns, "Threats, promises and good intentions don't amount to action".
This, ultimately is the challenge laid down by John Lydon in "God Save The Queen", at least as interpreted by many of his followers: The phrase "No future for you" is not a nihilistic rant, but a prompt-The inevitability of Linear Modernist progress is a sham and a myth. Yes, there's "no future", at least as futurists imagine there to be. So what are you gonna do now? Things will stay as they are forever unless people stand up to do something about it and change things for the better. You make the choice.
It is of course also worth mentioning in any discussion of Lydon, at least in his days with The Sex Pistols, that he was very much the professional troll. His "Johnny Rotten" character was the central theme of Bowie's "Hang On to Yourself" personified and that was always his intention. Notice how his tune changes dramatically as soon as he creates Public Image, Ltd. (although he arguably snaps back there for the 1984 "Album" album). If we're going to discuss Lydon in terms of academia we'd do best to keep that in mind.
December 5, 2011 @ 11:47 pm
I don't know what the Lib Dem line on the Occupiers is, but I can't imagine that a group brought together through a shared dream of 'boring people to death about the minutiae of different voting systems' becoming an Olympic sport, and a bunch of people who want to dismantle the whole system of democracy and put something much wilder and less organised in its place, can have much to talk about.
December 6, 2011 @ 1:00 am
SK: For what it's worth, this was Vince Cable's take on the Occupy protesters:
Asked if he had sympathy with the protesters, Lib Dem Business Secretary Mr Cable, who has vowed to tackle "the escalation of executive pay", told the Politics Show: "I have sympathy with the emotions that lie behind it.
"Some of their recommendations aren't terribly helpful, but that's not the point. I think it does reflect a feeling that a small number of people have done extraordinarily well in the crisis, often undeservedly, and large numbers of other people who've played no part in causing the crisis have been hurt by it. So that's the source of the injustice."
But he said it was important to get "beyond slogans" and stressed he had set up a review into reforming executive pay.
BBC News: Vince Cable expresses sympathy for St Paul's protesters
December 6, 2011 @ 1:15 am
Well, that's clear as mud.
December 6, 2011 @ 1:24 am
However confusing and annoying it is for the impeccably well-informed British readers of this column to see the word "liberal" used in the imprecise American sense, it's just one of those things we have to live with, like small pints.
Mr Hickey, anyone who uses the word "liberal" (with a small "l") as a synonym for "Liberal Democrat" needs to read his dictionary. There are liberals in all the main British political parties. At present they appear to hold sway in the Liberal Democrats and in the Conservative party.
I'm aware of at least one former Tory MP who used to subscribe to my DW fanzine, and it is a well known fact that Enver Hoxha held a private screening of "Marco Polo" for Manny Shinwell in 1992, so I'm not convinced that the "huge overlap" in fandom is confined to LibDems.
Perhaps there's an overlap between idealistic activism and being a DW fan? (Not a total overlap, as SK demonstrates.)
December 6, 2011 @ 1:28 am
SK – it's about as clear an expression of support as you can get when you're having to tread on eggshells because you're in a coalition.
The whole 'boring people to death about different voting systems' thing is, after all, because we think the current system doesn't work and want to see it replaced by one that does (where 'work'= either 'represent the people' or 'provide competent governments that don't just serve big business').
As for the Occupy people being "a bunch of people who want to dismantle the whole system of democracy and put something much wilder and less organised in its place", that's not how they seem to me. Some are, of course. Others seem to be just there to make trouble for this government, in the belief that Labour is the only party that's ever legitimately in charge. But the majority seem to me to be a mixture of mainstream Social Democrats/democratic socialists, and people who don't have a preferred system but just don't like what's happening at the moment.
December 6, 2011 @ 1:37 am
Wm – I certainly wouldn't use liberal as a synonym for Liberal Democrat, and if that was the impression I gave I apologise for my imprecision. Almost all Liberal Democrats are Liberals, but not all Liberals are Liberal Democrats (if nothing else the fifty or so people left in the Liberal Party might have something to say about that). Chris Huhne talks about 'the wider Parliamentary Liberal Party' which he estimated (prior to the last election) as consisting of all the Lib Dems, about 50 Labour MPs and about 100 Tory ones.
I disagree that Liberalism 'holds sway' over the Tories though – because of the unique situation with the coalition, the more small-l-liberal members of the party like Ken Clarke are having disproportionate influence (just as the more economically right-wing members of the Lib Dems like Cable and Alexander are, for the same reasons) but I don't think their views are popular in their party at all.
And yes, of course, there are Doctor Who fans in all political parties. But I do think there seem to be a larger proportion of Lib Dems in fandom than in the population at large, in much the same way there seem to be more LGBT people in both groups.
December 6, 2011 @ 4:09 am
Liberal Democrats seem to be more into sci-fi generally.
A harsher man than me might make comments about them finding it easier to cope with implausible utopian fantasies than to see their sky-castles crash into the real world.
December 6, 2011 @ 4:31 am
It's more likely to be simply a statistical side-effect of the well-established correlation between education and liberalism.
December 6, 2011 @ 4:37 am
Ah, the ivory tower effect. Got you.
December 6, 2011 @ 10:01 am
@Iain, SK, Andrew, WM
This is why I would never, ever consider myself a Utopian and why I went on at length to defend John Lydon and Robert Holmes. Cynicism does not equal nihilism and glittering idealism is not sustainable nor a practical alternative solution to the problems of the world. This is why righteous anger exists: There are people who know very well Liberal sky-castle politics never gets anywhere but who are still angry about injustice nonetheless. The challenge is to channel that fire in a practical fashion and make one's words and actions count for something.
December 6, 2011 @ 10:12 am
Well, depends what "utopian" means. Sometimes it means "insisting on an ideal with no concern for whether it's practically implementable in principle," in which case it seems like a bad thing. But it can also mean "insisting on an ideal with no concern for whether it's politically feasible in the immediate future," in whch case I would say that utopians are desperately needed and have been at the forefront of most human progress. If people ha waited for antislavery, or women's rights, or democracy, etc., etc., to become politically feasible before they agitated for them, they would NEVER have become politically feasible.
December 6, 2011 @ 10:48 am
Just to say – great to see Henry Woolf at the top of this post, a great seventies character actor, and school chum of Harold Pinter, the man who got Pinter to write his first play.
Only just discovered this blog. Good stuff. Working my way through.
December 6, 2011 @ 11:48 am
Excellent point and that's right in line with my line of thought too. I tend to view "Utopianism" as the former description you gave, but I'm firmly allied with the latter account. Apathy is just as bad, if not worse, than head-in-the-clouds hemming and hawing. I'd rather have someone outspokenly fighting for something that might not become a reality for years than someone resigned to accepting the world as it is.
In terms of my Lydon example, I'd rather see someone who knows the future must be fought for and won't come unless we make it come than someone who either blindly accepts the idea of the inevitability of progress (the Modernist who believes the future is a given) or the nihilist who has given up on any hope of positive change whatsoever.
December 7, 2011 @ 12:39 am
Yes, "Liberal" really doesn't mean the same thing over the Atlantic that it does over here. Seems like in the US calling someone a "liberal" is insult enough, without having to qualify what you mean:
Henry R. Kujawa
April 17, 2012 @ 7:28 pm
A few points…
The "95%" thing IS insane. To anyone with any sense, a FLAT RATE with absolutely NO excemptions or deductions would be absolutely fair, no matter how much– or little– someone made. And they could eliminate most of the IRS, all those people would just have to find new careers. In England, it would stop inspiring rich people to leave the country, where the Inland Revenue get NO taxes at all.
Some actors become absolutely identified with a single role, no matter what else they do. So it is for me with Richard Leech. After seeing this, I almost forgot he was also the main villain in my favorite episode of THE NEW AVENGERS, "FACES".
Leela is MAGNIFICENT in this one. And I love K-9!!
Does Mandrell remind anyone else of JNT?
Never noticed this before… this suddenly reminded me of "VENGEANCE ON VAROS"– except, "done right". No question, it was a HUGE mistake to remove most of the humor from that. That story is so sick and perverse and mean-spirited and nasty across the board, it probably would have worked a lot better if it was played as much for laughs as possible. The way "PARADISE TOWERS" was. (The Collector suddenly reminded me of Sil.)
You know, I can see someone decided to take a restricted format and a reduced budget and trying to turn it into an advantage. Hey, DOCTOR WHO never got as "cheap" looking as the 3rd season of BATMAN. (Thank God for that.) And all these years, I always heard it was just a matter of "scary" was out, so maybe "funny" would be more acceptable.
December 27, 2012 @ 7:51 pm
I got this for Christmas. Man, it's funny as hell, but K-9 is so damn LOUD because of the chain-drive inside of him. I do miss that little "Ooh!" noise he made…