This machine mildly irritates fascists

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Tom Watts
    July 27, 2011 @ 4:09 am

    Of course the Chinese political context is as relevant as the UK one. Mao had been as good as deified, Lin Biao was still alive and intellectuals were still mucking out the pig sheds. Chinese embassy staff had the same semi-criminal reputation that the Libyans went on to enjoy – attacking police, kidnapping and drugging people, etc. Foreign embassy staff in China were also at risk. From Time, later in 1971:

    "In an effort to retrieve their fellow diplomat, the Chinese made two coordinated rushes at the riot troopers, who fought them off. Once alone Chinese attacked the troopers with karate blows. One Chinese bit a C.R.S. officer.",9171,902951,00.html

    Whether or not this is entirely true, one can see how it ties in with the contemporary Chinese reputation for extremism, unruliness and implacability. Godard was still in his Maoist period, and indeed there were a large number of artists and intellectuals in the UK who thought that there was something going on in China worthy of our admiration and respect.

    Pik Sen Lim played the girl, who was Houghton's wife. Wikipedia tells me she was Malaysian Chinese, who emigrated to the UK in 1960 which would have been at the end of the Malayan Emergency. She was the daughter of a rich capitalist and went on to play another Communist true believer in Mind Your Language. I have a friend who studied film-making in Beijing, and went on to appear in Mainland potboilers as an evil Westerner, sitting on a horse and saying "Kill them all", that kind of thing. He found it all tremendous fun.

    I don't see racism in it, except the racism of employing such a rotten actor as Chin Lee's boss. On the contrary, the programme wants to ingratiate itself – China is the future, a billion tiny feet and all that, and the Doctor is a personal friend of Mao's. I think this should be seen in the context of youth culture, post war cultural change and its dislocations in the UK and the sheer lack of information in the pre-internet age about what was actually happening – naturally Doctor Who wanted to be a part of a new fashionable excitement.

    A machine that works on the principle that there is a tangible quality of evil that some people inherently have, on the other hand, is just genocidally bullshit.

    I'm running out of time, but you're right – from a socialist perspective. From the Conservative or the Christian standpoint, it's a perfectly inoffensive and intriguing sci-fi idea. What if you could lever out original sin – what if it's something implanted? Come to think of it, that's Scientology!


  2. David
    July 27, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    Another great "review", though I'd make one quibble:

    "The stereotypical Chinese woman turns into dragons?"

    Isn't this a bit of a comment on the American delegate? He's meant to be at a peace conference but is actually deep down a racist who's terrified of the Chinese?


  3. Gnaeus
    July 27, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    "Bad people are inherently bad. Good people are justified in what it takes to stop bad people. And it's that simple. The world divides into good people, who are either smart (i.e. agree with the Doctor) or foolish (i.e. don't agree with the Doctor), and bad people, who all work for the Master. And that's just how people are. Bad people want to hurt us. And we have to stop them."

    Tell me, how do you feel about the Russell T. Davies era?


  4. Bill Reed
    July 27, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    "It's a show about a smug man with a big nose who saves the world from bad guys and is sometimes kind of a bully."

    But we haven't even gotten to Tom Baker yet. Or Chris Eccleston. Or Matt Smith.

    Which is to say, I think that kind of show is the same show as the "madman with a box" show.


  5. Elizabeth Sandifer
    July 27, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    Except in the end, the box matters. If you remove the box from the concept, you just have a madman.


  6. Matthew Celestis
    July 27, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    In this story I really hate the way the Doctor humiliates the Brigadier in front of the Chinese bloke. It came across as very low.


  7. Wm Keith
    July 27, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    Looking on the bright side (and I can tell that your heart simultaneously revolts against and yearns for the Third Doctor!) you could argue that this overweening arrogance is part of the Doctor climbing higher than he has ever climbed, before he falls further than he has ever fallen. It's just that the fall is a very, very long time coming.


  8. Spacewarp
    July 28, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    Pertwee is indeed the most consistently "Action" Doctor, and I can actually see why you don't like this as much as the rest of the whole range of Doctor Who over the decades. Although you're doing a very good job of reviewing Who in context of the time it was broadcast, I think you need to cut Pertwee some slack for this very reason. It is quite possible that Doctor Who's shift towards the more action-oriented television of the time contributed majorly towards its popularity. A story like "Genesis of the Daleks" simply wouldn't have worked quite as well in 1971.

    Also, I think you really have to take the age of the viewers into account when assessing these stories. In modern fan parlance I would refer to Pertwee as "my Doctor" – but not because of a preference for his stories or even his acting, but simply because I grew up watching him. In a sense I'm hardwired to like Pertwee through the medium of childhood influence. I couldn't not like him if I tried. And channeling the memories of my inner 11-year old for a second, action runarounds set on Earth, with monsters, the Army, a flamboyant hero and a mini-skirted dolly-bird were exactly what I enjoyed at that age.

    When watching him as an adult one loses this rose-tinted child view. Hence I can't watch McCoy or Davison with anything but an adult eye, but equally I can't watch Pertwee and early Baker with a critical eye.

    Personally I think it's the continual ageing of the Who fan population that causes various Doctors to fall in and out of favour, as viewers who were of childhood age during a particular Doctor drift in and out of fandom.

    I think the "reappraisal" of Pertwee during the 90s was probably down to the release of so much of his era on VHS. Hence fans who had never seen him as a child could now see what all the fuss was about, and found him wanting (at least from an adult viewpoint).


  9. Spacewarp
    July 28, 2011 @ 12:27 am

    "The point of this blog is to track the story of Doctor Who. And that assumes that there is an essential core to Doctor Who."

    I have never really felt this about Doctor Who. I have always seen the programme as totally chameleonic, changing its nature to fit in with (and reflect) the current time. To me the idea of there being a core of values that define the program skirts a bit too close to the oft-repeated fan-cry of "this isn't what Doctor Who is about."

    But of course if we do take that viewpoint, it completely destroys the framework of your blog!


  10. Jesse
    August 2, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    I realized, when I read this, that I had never seen this serial. And so I watched it, and I found I disagreed with a great deal of your review. But that's neither here nor there — really want I want to ask is: How does the Doctor's alleged chumminess with Chairman Mao affect your earlier comments on his alleged chumminess with Tubby Rowlands? He presents both with a straight face. Both could be bullshit & probably are. On the other hand, if they aren't bullshit, then he's not just chatting with Tories in private clubs; he's hanging out with one of the world's most notorious Communists. Whatever else you might say about that — and given Mao's body count, that isn't a friendship I'd want to brag about — it certainly complicates the argument that Pertwee's Doctor is an essentially conservative figure. (Unless, of course, he was there as a part of the Nixon/Kissinger mission. But no, he doesn't meet Nixon til THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT. Insert emoticon here.)

    The politics of this serial are pretty interesting. A conspiratorial force linked to Communist China using mind control to set off prison riots — you could take that in a deeply paranoid right-wing direction. But instead the Chinese turn out to be innocent victims as well. It's interesting also that the device setting off those riots would be a device designed for CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style prison "rehabilitation." I wonder what Foucault would have made of this story?


  11. Flying Tiger Comics
    August 29, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    Any criticism any of the luvvies of the 1990s made of Pertwee and his time of service is utterly and permanently invalidated by the truly awful godlike Doctor they have wrought since 2005. It is ridiculous to the point of surreality.

    Finally Moffat seems to be taking the occasional tiny step back from it, but the apotheosis of the Doctor post-2005 is not only absurdly incompatible with the premise of the show it is ostensibly unworkable dramatically due to the EE Doc Smith power inflation attendant upon it.

    At some point the Skylark of Space ever-larger-spaceship equivalent in Doctor Who has to stop.

    The ultimate irony is that everything these archetypical internet tough guys lambasted about Pertwee is essentially exactly what their Frankendoctor is all about.


    • Dk
      April 23, 2024 @ 10:13 pm

      @Flying Tiger


  12. Seeing_I
    August 31, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    The Keller Machine's principle that there is a definable and extractable quality of "evil" goes back to Whitaker's "Dalek Factor" and "Human Factor," or the idea that the Cybermen can surgically remove one's humanity. It's basically magical / symbolic thinking. Why is it more objectionable here?


  13. tantalus1970
    January 23, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Yey, another Sandbaggers fan!

    "Then there's the casual racism. And it is intensely casual."

    Bear in mind that one of the BBC's most popular shows at the time was The Black And White Minstrel Show (which I remember watching). Doctor Who could have been a lot worse!


  14. David Ainsworth
    March 4, 2013 @ 5:50 am

    There's a redemptive reading here. Fair enough if you don't want to follow it–I'm not entirely a believer myself–but it's worth mentioning.

    A central problem with the reading of the Keller Machine and "evil" in this story is that the story's too invested in Western cultural traditions of good and evil. There's some interesting complication early on with the possibility that the Machine affects aggressiveness, but I don't find that sustainable across the whole story.

    Barry Letts and Planet of the Spiders are key to a redemptive reading. If "good" and "evil" are taken within a Buddhist perspective, then they can be read outside the dualistic structure they seem to reinforce. (Warning: reading to come necessarily oversimplifies Buddhism.)

    The "old man/new man" Buddhism of Planet of the Spiders presents a confrontation with one's fears as the catalyst for the transcendence of the self, the death of ego. And what is the Keller Process but a confrontation with one's greatest fears? The results of the Machine also seem to suggest that it can be seen as stripping away the trappings of ego. And the tremendous fearsome power of the Machine over the Doctor (and the Master, for that matter) reflect not evil or sin in a Judeo-Christian sense, but the deeper temptation to perceive both good and evil as intrinsic characteristics of the individual ego. That both rebel Time Lords read the Machine's functioning within a dualistic system which their own massive egos depend upon shouldn't surprise us, but I'm not entirely convinced that the story fully endorses their views.

    To the extent that the Machine can be read as anything other than a brainwashing, it must be read along these lines: the parasite feeds off of a particular form of terror related to a specific mind-set and to the power of one's ego, but the side effect of what it does to feed can (inadvertently) advance the victim along a path to Buddhist enlightenment.

    Naturally, the story on the screen does little to explicitly advance this possibility.

    There's also a potential issue here with certain applications of post-colonialist theory and differing cultural expectations of human nature and behavior. Given the specific contexts of Mao's China, the ethics of the Keller Process could be read as the ethics of the Cultural Revolution. Did that represent a massive imposition of one man's ego upon an entire nation? To what extent can the socialist values of the Revolution be distinguished from the frankly brutal way in which it was carried out? To what extent did the conformist underpinnings of the Cultural Revolution represent a revision of Chinese culture (if such a monolithic thing exists), versus a redirection of it?

    Is Mao ultimately a figure more in line with the Master's role in this story? Or the Doctor's?


  15. Matthew Blanchette
    June 5, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    He likes it, surprisingly.


  16. Matthew Blanchette
    June 5, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

    Because Whitaker is untouchable to Phil.


  17. Matthew Blanchette
    June 5, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

    Never mind that the main Chinese character is played by Don Houghton's wife. How "racist" can it be?


  18. Elizabeth Sandifer
    June 5, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    And because Mind of Evil pairs it with the social realism of the prison system.


  19. Matthew Blanchette
    June 7, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    But, then, doesn't that make the magic/symbolism of it even more wonderful? It's Whitaker meets Scum.


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