Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Peace Of The Gun

Following on from the SFX Forun's consideration of The Space Museum, we're trawling through The Invasion this month. What with that story being eight parts, I'll divide my thoughts on the story into two posts.  Below the fold is, unsurprisingly, my thoughts on the first four episodes.

Episode 1

Since this is basically just shuffling pieces around, I can keep things brief. Just four quick points.

1. I love the Doctor's hatred of computers here. At least, I love it if I'm right about how to take it, which is not a hatred of them per se so much as objecting to them being used in situations where a human being would be preferable. Every time a machine is employed to do a person's job, it means one less person has a job. It fits in perfectly with my concept of the Doctor (in most of his iterations, at least) that he'd hate the idea of mechanisation in any society where unemployment is a problem. The idea of Patrick Troughton bouncing around shouting at automated checkouts in the supermarket is a nice bonus.

2. Vaughn is simply wonderful. Kevin Stoney comes across like an evil Sir Humphrey Appleby (or, depending on your viewpoint, a more obviously and deliberately evil Sir Humphrey Appleby). It's a real shame we can't see his introductory scene; I'd love to see how unsettling he is with his rare blinking (I remember Neil Pearson doing the same thing in Crossing the Floor years ago; it was really quite eerie).

3. Whilst we're on the subject, I'd rate the animation here as adequate, sometimes lacklustre. The Doctor looks a bit too much like Droopy (though giving that miserable mutt a TARDIS would probably create a very interesting cartoon), and Zoe's prettiness has been replaced with some kind of smirking death-mask, which is a shame.

4. It bothers me a little that Zoe chooses not to get in on the boy's adventures because she'd rather be in a photo-shoot. That said, I've been pretty much persuaded this is an OK development since a) it's kind of a time-travelling tourism thing to do, and b) next episode Zoe gets to show how awesomely smart and resourceful she is, so spending some time making the point that this doesn't impinge on her ability to be ridiculously cute in the slightest.

Episode 2

Hooray! UNIT has finally arrived! Mankind is saved.

Mind you, I wouldn't want to be in charge over there. Not just because every week I'd been in danger of being eaten or smothered or disintegrated, but because of the bureaucracy. Authority to investigate but not arrest? That sounds like a logistical nightmare. No wonder two years later they've moved on to just shooting anything that moves.

Still, they've got some cool toys, I suppose. Who wouldn't want a secret headquarters inside a plane? That said, the Thunderbirds-style base rather confuses things. I've been trying to figure out what this story's position is on technology. On the one hand, International Electromatics - with its enraging automated receptionists and tinny purveyors of contemporary trash-tunes - suggests a certain dislike of the relentless advance of the electronic circuit. But on the other, the Brig and his redoubtable tea-powered crusaders are just as blessed with bells and whistles and lights and sounds.

It was easier to figure out what side of the line this story was last episode, when the Doctor was shouting at machines - as I said at the time, this came across most plausibly as an objection to replacing people with devices. Much as I love Zoe, I can't see her issues stemming from the same place - hers at heart is the same annoyance a 21st century teenager would feel being handed a phonograph and told to get on with it. As I see it, there's two likely alternatives. Either this is a story about how private monopolies are bad, and the state needs to break them up (an idea I'm fine with in theory but pretty unconvinced about the idea that the British military as it was considered in the mid '60s represents a superior alternative), or it's another entry in the endlessly tiring genre of stories about how the kids today with their music and their libidos and their micro-electronics are bound to bring about the destruction of contemporary society unless a stern upper-middle class white man with a thin moustache steps in to sort everything out for them.

Either way, this introduction of the British military (it won't be anything more than UKIT until "Battlefield" rolls around") as a force for dealing with all these naughty aliens trying to rewrite the way this little island chain of ours functions will lead to problems down the road...

Episode 3

Oh, now I get it. This is all about the fear of a standardised world.

Well, first of all, fuck off. You don't get to cast the British military (which, as I've said before, UNIT clearly is at this point) as the guardians of the world and then turn around and bemoan cultural homogeneity, as though that wasn't what our armed forces hadn't spent the last century and a half trying to instill on the rest of the world.

But then, this isn't a remotely surprising oversight considering the conservatism of the basic objection. There's no easy way to separate the fear that everyone is going to end up indistinguishable - the aim of the Cybermen, of course, and linking them explicitly to the spread of technology is at least a neat metaphor, even if it doesn't go where the writers hope - from the fear that everyone is going to end up indistinguishable in ways different from how you want to people to be indistinguishable. Historically, the voices who protest loudest (by which I mean have most access to the microphones) against homogenisation are the same voices who insist everyone should be just like them. The Republicans and Tories who raged against the Red Terror during the Cold War were the same people insisting any deviation from their own philosophies was tantamount to treason. In the States, things have only gotten worse; lacking another Evil Empire to obsess over (and no, Iran decidedly does not count), the Republicans have trained their metaphorical (usually) guns on their own people.

One way to consider the underlying metaphor of the zombie genre (post Romero, at least) is a fear of the mob. It's not a theory I'm particularly fond of, but it can't be dismissed, and The Invasion explains why. What are Cybermen in the final analysis other than zombies that are smarter and better equipped than we are? They will turn us into them just as surely as Romero's ghouls of Kirkman's biters. They represent the death of free will and individualism, which is genuinely something to be feared (hence why the "fear of the mob" idea bugs me). But the person doing the fearing, and the reasons why they're doing it, are important, and this story doesn't strike me as objecting for the right reasons. Not least because this fear of cultural dominance is tied into to Jamie having a transistor radio that plays that nonsense noise kids like these days. It's all the same, isn't it? Not proper music. Just din.

So you end up with the horrible suggestion that the people who don't like something are the best placed to judge its worth, and that what the youth of the era are interested in is somehow problematic if it differs from your own experience. Which brings us right back to the central problem here: you can't condemn variation whilst bleating about unwanted conformity.

At least, you can't without taking us somewhere I'd rather this programme never went.

Other observations: I miss Zoe, though clearly she'd earned a break messing with that computer. And this episode has one of my favourite Who cliffhangers - being trapped in a box with something moving beneath a cover is a proper slice of horror.

(I should note that upon originally posting this, I got push-back from my friend Runalong for not mentioning the obvious influence of the fear of automation showing up here.  Which, yes, entirely fair point. I don't think this actually overwrites any of my arguments - I wonder if the two-man writing team explains the confusion here, actually - but missing it out entirely is unforgivable.   I might want to point out that I'm far from happy with the idea that the British armed forces are keeping us safe from job losses, since they're no use at all against corporations downsizing their workforces, which means they're only of use a direct recruiters and/or through intimidating immigrants attempting to find work in the UK, but this is something to return to later in the story.)

Episode 4

I've really very little to say here. With so much of the episode taken up with escaping IE and then returning there. I'm somewhat lost for inspiration. It doesn't help that this is an animated episode. The most interesting aspect of this episode from a contemporary standpoint is what a late '60s action sequence looks like on a shoestring budget. With the original footage lost, even that is denied to us (though it's good to see the animators took their job seriously enough to faithfully re-create Isobel's knickers). You have to wonder about the guards Packer has hired, though. It's unforgivable enough to miss a helicopter whilst hovering a few metres overhead, but those ricochets mean they were hitting something. Other buildings? These people are to armed response what Dr Who extras are to Equity membership. You're just dragging everyone down, mates.

Other than that, it amuses me that the Brigadier puts less effort into arguing against the plausibility of flying saucers than the Doctor does the idea that Jamie saw something right in front of his face move. Routledge's telephone approach amused me ("Male or female?", you old dog?), and I continue to love Kevin Stoney's quiet quiet LOUD approach to Vaughn as well (his slimy "Ah, good morning" to a pretty phone operator is great as well).

We also finally get to see the redesigned Cyberman. helpfully listed in the credits for anyone who hadn't made the link. It feels a little rushed, and again the animation causes problems, with Jamie's shocked face entirely too closely resembling a puppy dog excited at the prospect of a new toy. But hey, at least it's an awesome design.

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