Thursday, 24 July 2014

Soy-Protein Purple Isn't People!

"Greetings, glorious liberators!"
The SFX Forum's "best companion" discussion has reached the Sixth Doctor.  This is actually a really difficult one, more so than it might at first appear. As I said at the time:
On the one hand, I much prefer Nicola Bryant to Bonnie Langford, and even my unashamed love of "Terror of the Vervoids" doesn't stretch so far as to arguing it's even in the top three Colin Baker stories. Moreover, more so than with any other Doctor's run, there is almost nothing here to distinguish a good companion story from a good story full stop; the best companion stories are where their almost completely superfluous roles happen in an interesting story rather than a dull one.

So all of that should make me plump for Peri. Except... say what you want about how little Langford actually offered as Mel, at least she wasn't essentially being treated as a psychologically and occasionally physically abused woman. At least she wasn't fridged in a particularly nasty way (I don't just mean in terms of how unpleasant her fate was, I mean the fact that's immediately twisted into evidence against the Doctor, as though her death matters most in terms of how much harder a job the "real" hero now has to escape his fate). Watching Peri is hard. Ignoring Mel is easy.

But I think the very fact that Peri is often treated so despicably by the show is why we should choose her in one of the moments she was treated best. We can't just shuffle past so sad and mean-spirited a period, we have to separate what went right from what went (so, so) wrong, otherwise how will we learn to do better?

As I say, then, I'm really just picking a story which is at least fairly good, and in which Peri isn't either strangled or pointlessly killed off. "The Two Doctors" is out because I don't have the energy for more racism after "Talons...", which really only leaves me with "Vengeance..." and "Revelation...". The former has the better metaphor, but since we're talking about Peri I'll go for the latter purely because the Doctor is at his least abrasive here (for that season, at least) and, if we're going to focus on how Peri could have been so much better used, I'd rather we discussed it in an episode where she's allowed to wrap up properly.
Which I stand by, in the main, though in retrospect I probably should have plumped for "Mysterious Planet" (not having seen in it in twenty years probably didn't help there).   Still, "Revelations..." is what we plumped for; the usual witterings are below the fold. As predicted, I could find little to say on Peri herself, though in large part that's bnecause the story actually relies on our main characters getting very little to do.

Episode 1: The Pyramids of Earth

So far as I can tell, there are basically two ways to read this episode. The problem is, both of them are the most obvious approaches to Baker II stories imaginable: it's either a comment on how awful Thatcher is, or how awful Thatcher-era Who is.

The latter reading has less in the way of obvious ammo to it, so I'll dispense with it quickly: this is an episode in which grave robbing - essentially the stealing of the past - is necessary and even (comparatively) heroic. This is an episode suffused via the DJ with nostalgia for simpler times, when music sounded like music and we weren't surrounded by the dead pretending they were still of interest or use to anybody. This is an episode that quite literally ends with the current Doctor being crushed by his own iconography. The curl-framed face of Baker II rushes towards the camera just as it does at the start of the episode, and the cliffhanger sting kicks in. It's like the show is telling us "We know this is what could kill us". This does not, to put it mildly, read as a show comfortable with its present in comparison to its past.

Like I said, that's maybe not enough to make the case stick. But it's instructive I think in terms of what's more likely going on. The key aspect of the DJs nostalgia here is the use to which it is being put; an anaesthetic for the masses. Keeping the dead calm.

Because whilst nostalgia can be lovely in small doses - watch me wax lyrical about a story I first saw as a child, for example, though anyone arguing this particular dose should also be smaller would not lack for cause - it's a distinctly problematic force from a political perspective. If one responds to the inadequacy of the present by dreaming of the lost glories of the past (real or imagined, and almost always they're the latter) you're less likely to actively fight against what's making the present so awful.

(In musical terms, of course, it's punk you need to be playing - at least for white guys, it is - but it's not until arguably as late as "Paradise Towers" that the show will engage with punk in any real sense, where "real" should not necessarily be taken to mean "successful").

What all this means is that nostalgia can be weaponised by the powerful to slow or arrest movement towards change. This is a profoundly useful tactic for entrenched conservative power, because it can be used against the left to generate apathy, and against the right to generate calls for retrenchment. The left becomes wistful for it's few victories, and the right festers over what it insists are its many defeats.

So, cui bono? Here it's Davros and Kara, opponents in what they want (more money and power) but allies in who they are taking advantage of; the dead, and the people who loved them. Having rapacious capitalists masquerade as solemn stewards of the dead is actually a genius move. Remember that this story aired just a hair over six years after the Winter of Discontent. There were many complaints about the effect of rampant industrial action during that period, but one of the most commonly referenced ones these days was the state's failure to bury our dead. When Thatcher's Tories took the country in '79, then, one of their promises (whether or not it was implicit) was that our dead were now in safe hands.

But of all the actual important things a government needs to do, ensuring the dead get put in the ground quickly isn't really near the top of the list. As long as you're not creating a health hazard, it's vastly more important that the living are adequately cared for.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. A promise to treat the dead with the respect they deserve whilst making no effort to treat the living the same way is once again placing the past above the present (a practice that tends to crop up in tremendously oppressive societies, like the ancient Egyptians; note how there as here it's only a certain sort of dead body that gets all the attention). How else can Davros get away with calling himself "The Great Healer" when no-one he's charged with is liable to ever recover, and those he treats whilst still alive are horribly mutated? It's the other side of the common complaint that American conservatives think life begins at conception and ends at birth. The dead must be venerated. The living - the ones who can still cause trouble - are best ignored.

(This also spills into the idea of controlling history's narrative. It is critical for right-wing thinking that the past adhere to the conservative story - no messiness or ambiguity allowed. This is why grave-robbing carries the death penalty on Necros; it's intolerable to think people should have access to the narratives of their own past. Natasha and Grigory aren't just thieves, they're something much more dangerous: historians.)

However, we can take this thinking too far. This is one of two reasons why Kara is in this story (I'll talk about the other next episode). We're horrified by Davros using the dead for his own selfish gain, but we're equally horrified by the idea Kara is using them to produce food for the galaxy (which isn't technically revealed in this episode, but it's absurdly obvious under the circumstances; Solyent Green has been around for twelve years at this point). If we want to make the point that the living must take priority over the dead, then why not applaud Kara's ingenuity?

One obvious answer lies in how little Kara obviously actually cares about people. She bitches about how she doesn't make enough money by helping countless trillions of people stay alive, she has no compunction arranging for the murders of Orcini and Bostock, and she even frames Vogel's death next episode as an unfortunate HR development (though Bron plays the line with a good deal more emotion than it might suggest on paper). But the bigger problem is that Kara can't conceive of the importance of consultation with those she has power over. This again has Thatcherism stamped all over it. The powerful know what's best for everyone; no need to check how they feel. Let's just get on with the job. The unifying force between Davros and Kara is that neither of them has any interest in what anyone else says about how they gather power (which this story is unusually direct about stating is essentially equivalent to money). Instead they spend their time telling themselves how awesome their respective processes are; Vogel is so consummate a bootlicker its amazing Kara has any footwear left, and Davros loves his "mutated heads in Daleks" he's slapped together a glass version just to show it off to an empty room.

This failure to listen isn't exclusively a problem of the right, of course. A lot of ostensibly left-wing people get really defensive and unpleasant when you point out to them their ideas of what constitutes bigotry or sensible ways to combat same don't actually match up with the experiences of those who are actually on the receiving end of that bigotry. But it's at least arguable that misunderstanding the specifics of social progress is more easily forgivable than refusing to recognise it as necessary. The worth of a society is directly proportional to how much it takes pains to listen to those people less commonly heard from (this is the chief reason people arguing it's only our own conceit that says modern society is superior to previous iterations are horribly wrong and need to shut up forever). It is perhaps ironic, or perhaps just an indication of how terribly wrong things have gone on Necros, that the best hope for a sympathetic ear available comes in the form of the notoriously acerbic and self-absorbed Sixth Doctor.

If he ever actually arrives, that is...

Oh, and some quick notes on Peri: gets to talk about botany for a bit, and gets to do it whilst fully clothed. She does have to murder a guy, though, and taste the Doctor's cooking, A mixed bag, then, especially as the Doctor continues to be unbearable to her. At least though she's not being captured, ignored or strangled. Small mercies are very much the only kind available to us right now.

Episode Two: You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Brains

With episode one used to describe in detail just how bad things are at Tranquil Repose, episode two is all about getting the revolution underway.

I may as well say straight out, I find this episode tremendously frustrating. It almost comes together, but in the end it's undermined by the violent cynicism that marred so much of this era.

Let's start with what does work, though. For starters, I'm a big fan of the fact that the Doctor appears little in this story, and does even less. I don't see it as a problem that Saward essentially invented the "Doctor-light" story twenty years before RTD felt compelled to try it (which of course, demonstrated it could work just fine). Quite the contrary, with a show that's been running for twenty years it's the kind of fiddling with the formula the show should be happy to try, especially since every other shake-up of the period seemed to boil down to "more graphic violence".

More than being an entirely sensible thing to try, it plays into what the story seems to be getting at. There's a long-recognised and deep-rooted problem with the show, from its inception to its latest iteration, which is that for the vast majority of the time, it's about a middle class white guy arriving in places where the workers/minorities are oppressed, and sorting things out for them.

To some extent this is inevitable, and even forgivable. If a bunch of middle-class white guys writing stories for a middle-class white guy institution, you're bound to end up with middle-class male whiteness getting everywhere, and at least this show is concerning itself with the right issues. That only gets us so far, though, it's still an obvious problem with a show (perhaps especially a British show) about a white guy travelling to new places and sorting them out for the locals.

Much of "Revelation..." runs as though it understands this. The Doctor is essentially an observer here, with almost nothing to do. The instigators of the revolution are instead Takis and Lilt, which is to say the people who were actually oppressed. Sure, they're not perfect, but then why would they have to be? Revolutionaries don't have to be pillars of virtue, that's just something we tell ourselves so we can support revolution in the abstract but never have to sympathise with any actual revolutionaries. Whilst they still bought into the old regime, Takis and Lilt were as unpleasant and violent as anyone, but once they snap, they snap the right way: fight the power!

The idea that the workers themselves get to kick off the fight whilst the Doctor bides his time and saves as many people as possible (living up to his name) until the dust settles and he can offer such advice as requested is actually a great one, neutralising many of the problems the show necessarily is burdened with. But there are three big problems that prevent the story from working out this way.

One of these problems is Lilt. As I've already argued, it's facile to feel revolutionaries need to be presented as flawless before we can root for them, but Lilt takes us too far in the opposite direction. His desire to "mark" Natasha in episode one is just too close to sexualised violence (note Lilt hasn't the slightest interest in "marking" Grigory) for it to be bearable to see him raised to de facto joint leader of the post-regime regime.

Secondly we have the problem with the Doctor, which is that the idea of him running humanitarian missions whilst the fight goes on elsewhere is completely undermined by how horrific the death toll is here. I count fourteen characters with dialogue in this story (not counting the TARDIS crew); by the end of episode two only three are still alive, one of whom is Davros. That's just a ludicrous death rate, compounded by how unnecessary it all is. Natasha and Grigory's deaths in particular have absolutely no relevance to the plot, and the DJs epically stupid death demonstrates how little even basic logic matters when there's a chance for another body to hit the floor. It is possible to have the Doctor allow others to make their own decisions without he himself seeming useless, but the story doesn't seem particularly interested in trying.

But the biggest problem, at least in structural terms, is the nature of Takis' plan for rebellion; just call in another bunch of ruthless tyrants, and hope they deal with the tyrants you want gone and then happily disappear. Now, this isn't an uncommon strategy in the real world. Indeed, it might not even automatically be a bad one. I'm about as far from oppressed as a person in this country can be short of being part of the aristocracy (either the "official" one via title, or the actual one via cashflow); I don't get to tell people how they should craft their revolutions. If you think persuading one bunch of powerful meatheads to beat up another bunch of powerful meatheads is going to help you out, then faster, proletaricat! Kill! Kill!

Its potential viability as a strategy doesn't really matter in this case, though. In the logic of the program we're watching it's an obviously boneheaded move. Takis has clearly swapped out one oppressor for another. Worse, he's gone for the same oppressor in a different coloured shell. So rather than managing to extricate themselves from their oppression, the workers once again become reliant upon the Doctor (and Orcini, whose status as a knight means he's presumably several rungs up the pecking order from the people working at Tranquil Repose) to get them out of their jam. Which is profoundly damaging, really. At least the rest of the time these people don't get the chance to sort out their own problems because of the Doctor's narrative force. Here they do get the chance and they bungle it horribly. If you're going to remove the Doctor from the central action to give others a space to breathe the absolute worst thing you can do is suggest those people are incapable of getting anything right without his guiding hand.

Like I say, this is all very frustrating. It's so nearly there. Take Davros, for example. He's better here than in any other classic series appearance since his debut. He might even outstrip himself in "Genesis..." actually, because here he's broken, knocked back by so many failures he's desperate for others to agree that he's got the right idea. There's really no other way to read the last temptation of Tasembeker other than an obsessive need for people to agree that the chance to become a Dalek is so unquestionably awesome as to be worth murdering those you love in exchange. Davros loathes Jobel for not wanting to be a Dalek, and has Tasembeker exterminated the instant she chooses love of over reinforced polycarbide armour. He no longer requires simple obedience, he needs approval. This is reinforced when he tells the Doctor he has made Daleks only from those of power and ambition, who'd doubtless see the upside to conquering the galaxy.

All of which takes us back to my points about the acquisition of money/power in episode one. Davros has become the archetypal capitalist millionaire not just through his pursuit of money, but through his need to justify his actions as reasonable. He's earned the money for experimentation, because people need food. He's helped those who have become Daleks, because that's the sort of thing people of ambition would like. He's convinced himself what's best for him is best for everyone else, ignoring as such people always do that what they think the haves need is always different to what they think the have-nots do.

In other words, just the sort of wilfully blind solipsist who needs to be taken out back by the workers he built his empire on and kicked to pieces. And so of course, he escapes, because the show needs a recurring villain more than it does to actually follow through on its own moral line. So do a dozen people die so that the Daleks don't have to start coming in two different flavours.

So does the show get so close to saying something interesting and worthwhile, to not only equalling the subtexts of earlier, greater eras but specifically improving upon them, only to sigh wearily and write "EVERYBODY DIES" in the margins. As an indication of how the show has begun using violence as an alternative to storytelling, "Revelations..." turns out to be as guilty as any other story this season.

Meanwhile, in Adventures With Peri; I confess I love her little conversation with the DJ. It's a nice way of addressing her homesickness, and the Doctor saying he's sorry about his death is about the nicest thing he says to Peri all story, if not all season. I like her handling of Jobel here, too. I'm not sure if this is the right way to read it, but it looks to me like she quickly realises direct insults are having no effect on his indestructible ego, so she moves on to putting the minimum amount of faux-politeness into rejecting him until she's got what she needs from him. It's still uncomfortable to watch him pawing at her, but she handles herself quite well, I think. And at least he gets stabbed (syringed?) to death later on. 

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