Monday, 1 September 2014

Zero Tolerance

Our ongoing tour of the best companions in Who history reaches its end with The Curse of Fenric, and after having to basically tread water with the Sixth Doctor, we have here something we can properly get our teeth into. ...Fenric is not only the greatest story the classic show ever broadcast, but it's got a well-considered role for everyone's favourite teenage anarchist, as well.

Episode 1: Albert Tucker's Time-Travel Crisis

At last, we reach the pinnacle of classic Who. Let's start with the obvious: this looks and sounds great. Not in that faintly condescending sense of "I can see why it would have worked at the time"; this still fires on all cylinders close to thirty years later. Mallet's direction, the location work and above all Mark Ayres superlative score - the best the program has ever had in either incarnation, so good that even Ayres himself couldn't come anywhere near it when composing more music for the extended edition -, it all just drips with menace. The opening shots of Sorin and his men rowing through the fog still makes me shiver after all this time.

It's helped along of course by having such a great cast. The leads are on top form (their hoodwinking of Bates - twice - is a particular highlight), but they've got plenty of help. Even this early into the story Parsons is much better than he has any right to be, and Dinsdale Landen is absolutely killing it as Judson. Even Alfred Lynch, who for years I thought was letting the side down, is on reflection doing something very specific and awfully clever, playing Millington as utterly detached and faintly put out that the present keeps intruding on his dreams of the future.

Which is important, because even for a show that's about time-travel, this is a story obsessed with the span of chronology. Specifically, on how cycles present themselves in history, and when and how to break them. Why else is the Doctor so concerned that the Russians have arrived at Maiden's Point just as the Vikings did Maiden's Bay? It's all a cycle. This is occurring on the personal level, too. Watch how Wainwright forces himself to go through the motions as a man of God because that's what his family always does, and note how there's always someone who'll show up to stick their noses in the Vikings' carved-rune business. See how Jean and Phylis ignore the warnings that heading to Maiden's Point always brings a bad end, and find the Haemovore talisman that's their first contact with the forces that will soon kill them.

But it's with regards to the Russians that this is most clear. At this stage in the narrative we're missing a lot of details, of course, but already we have reason to believe the British troops are expecting Russian interlopers. But why? As Ace notes, the Russians were on our side during the war, and for that matter the last one, and the one before that. What are the Russians doing sneaking around our Yorkshire beaches hoping they won't have to murder any teenage girls?

It's because of cycles. When Millington says three episodes from now "you people will always be the enemy", it would perhaps be more accurate to say "you people will always be the enemy again". It doesn't matter how many times two countries find their interests aligning, sooner or later mutual paranoia creeps back in. I met an elderly man at a Durham bus-stop once who was utterly convinced Finland was planning a surprise attack on the UK. Which, OK, is an extreme example, but it's just the reductio ad absurdum of common hawkish thinking. Sooner or later, everyone is going to become the enemy. Best get to work beating them now.

The key to all of this is the Prisoner's Dilemma. In a story about the nature of repeated history it seems almost irrelevant to point out that it hadn't actually been formulated (and certainly hadn't been named) by 1943, especially since it easily could have been if anyone had been paying attention. For anyone who doesn't know it, the Prisoner's Dilemma is absurdly simple: two criminals are arrested. The police have two charges they can level at them. The more serious carries a sentence of three years, the less serious one year, but only the second charge will stick absent a confession. The two criminals are then dealt with separately. Each is offered a deal whereby if they sell the other one out, they will walk whilst the other criminal goes down for the full three years. If both remain silent, they each get one year for the lesser charge. But if they both confess, their plea bargain still carries a reduced sentence of two years in prison each.

In other words, the best overall option is for both criminals to keep quiet and guarantees neither of them has to serve more than a year in prison. The problem of course is that if you stick to that plan and your co-conspirator doesn't, you're in real trouble (the TV show Goldenballs tried to make use of this example for its final round, but messed it up by writing the rules so that if your partner betrays you it makes no difference to you what option you pick). Which is a nice little mathematical cantrip, but not something you'd want to cling to as a philosophy or anything.

Which is exactly where Whitehall and the Kremlin have gone wrong. It's a real shame that the truncated version of "...Fenric" that aired cut out a really important line. When the Doctor says "Based on a false premise, don't you think?", McCoy was originally filmed continuing with "Like all zero-sum games." That line is critical to understanding what's going on here. The standard hawkish model of foreign policy is that it forms a zero-sum game. Our gains are exactly mirrored by our opponent's losses, and vice versa. As the Doctor (sort of) indicates, this is a transparently ridiculous view of the world, which ultimately leads to insane positions like arguing, for instance, that Barack Obama shouldn't be elected because was the presidential candidate Osama Bin Laden was rooting for (and how grimly hilarious does that line sound these days?), as though presidents should be decided upon not according to which candidate is best for your country, but who your enemies like the least.

But the Prisoner's Dilemma is all the hawks ever understand. Let's change the formulation. Two countries consider whether or not to break their alliance. If both keep it, everything is fine, though both sides have to settle for not getting their hands on all the delicious goodies available if a war went swimmingly. On the other hand, if your side breaches the alliance whilst the other doesn't, all sorts of tasty options open up as you grind your flabbergasted former allies into their native soil. Of course, the worst possible option is that both sides betray each other at the same time, leading to a costly protracted war and all sorts of interruptions at cocktail hour whilst you're required to care about casualty reports.

So the hawk option is always the same: attack first. They'll be the enemy again sooner or later. Attack now, and maximise this zero-sum game that so totally fails to consider that two countries working together could generate more than either country could ever manage alone.

Ultimately, as we shall see, the story of "...Fenric" is about how humanity is forever its worse enemy, and that war is the vector through which that self-aimed emnity so often acts, because a desire for peace is forever drowned out by the fear of fighting a war and losing. That's for later episodes, though. For now it suffices to note that the wheels have already begun spinning. Warriors from the lands of cold winters have returned. The Russians are once more the enemy. The final battle between the gods and the beasts is now. It's always now, because every battle is the same battle, beginning when the first homo sapien beat his neighbour to death for hogging the mammoth meat, and continuing ever since. A thousand million acts of violence justified by the need to do it to them before they do it to us, and the they here is almost always more or less incidental. Everyone rushes headlong at everyone else, terrified of being the first person to slow down, and so be trampled.

Each act could be the beginning of our end. So let's take a look at some alternatives, shall we?

Episode 2: What We Have Here...

It's round two of the Prisoner's dilemma, and we're still not quite finished sketching out the nature of the problem, and mapping it to the larger structure of the story.

There are two ways to look at the Prisoner's dilemma. One is that it's a problem set up by having two people who could easily ensure the best result for both of them if they were allowed to communicate. The second is that it's based on two people who could ensure the best result for both of them if they could ensure they will both co-operate.

Which rather demonstrates an obvious point: communication is co-operation. Otherwise you're just talking at people. There's a reason "dialogue" has the etymological roots it does. Throughout this episode, and this story, the benefits of co-operation through communication are constantly reinforced, along with what can go wrong when it is ignored.

This is perhaps most obvious in this second episode. Miss Hardaker is more concerned with haranguing her charges than even attempting to explain why what they're doing is a terrible idea. Reverend Wainwright breaks down preaching to an empty church, because no-one is truly listening to him. Ace lets loose a tide of vicious, all-consuming death because the Doctor couldn't be bothered to warn her not to. Gaiyuth is so traumatised he can only shiver and scream. The emotional and physical cost of a failure or inability to communicate is all too obvious.

But it isn't actually not communicating that's the real enemy, for all that Millington suggests it by having Bates cut off all outside contact to the base. The true foe is weaponised, perverted communication. It's Jean and Phylis trying to tear away what remains of Wainwright's faith. It's Millington and Whitehall designing a bomb to murder Russian officials when they include a specific word in their communications (through the use of the word "love", though it won't be until episode four that we fully return to the fact that corrupting communication/co-operation can reach the point of corrupting love). It's when you start caring about what others hear, simply because you want it to do the most damage possible (again, see episode four).

In the context of the Second World War setting, we can most easily describe this process as propaganda, but really, that's just one facet of the larger problem of attempting to justify a lack of dialogue; to justify why the other side shouldn't be entertained so far as to get their point across. The Haemovores do it to the humans. The British do it to the Russians. Most upsettingly, the Doctor does it to Ace. Everywhere co-operation is tossed aside in favour of attempting to win the battles that always start when we stop speaking to each other. The final images of a computer summoning Viking vampires from the sea (easily the best elevator pitch the classic series managed, by the way) is a reminder of what can happen when we stop speaking to each other. Something else will fill the gap. A computer designed by a narcissist will recommend something that ends up destroying the lies of who knows how many people, because no-one else has had the chance to point out how ridiculous and futile it all is.

This is the story's lowest ebb. It is the Doctor's lowest ebb. What matters now is the damage that will ensue as we try to climb out of the whole that has been dug.

Episode 3: Girl, You'll Be A Woman, Soon 

Episode Three is once again concerned with co-operation and communication. The Prisoner's Dilemma, as we've discussed, is all about what happens when both of these are utterly removed from consideration. Which makes it rather ironic that the Doctor explicitly rejects the whole idea, since up to now in this story he's clearly not had the slightest interest in cooperating with anyone.

And finally Ace calls him on it, in what's definitely one of my absolute favourite Aldred moments in the show. It is, as so many people have said, Ace insisting she is no longer a child and needs to stop being treated as such, but of course every teenager says that, all the time. What matters here is that Ace is so obviously right, and the very instant the Doctor explains exactly what's going down, she suggests a scheme that will help them out. The fact that this plan explicitly involves co-operation with someone else is just the icing on the cake.

Because amongst everything else involved in the long, painful march to adulthood, growing up means learning how to communicate, and how to cooperate. There are uncountable psychological textbooks written on the subject of how a child's ability to comprehend language and learn the importance of social interactions improves as they get older. Ace has arrived there, and probably arrived there a little while ago. It's time for the Doctor to realise that.

This is a wider point, of course. It isn't just Ace the Seventh Doctor is treating like a child. It's pretty much everyone. Playing his own game, not explaining any more than he has to in order to get people to do what he wants. Millington is playing things the same way, of course, and he exists in the text as the ultimate example of what goes wrong when you stop considering any worth in co-operation. He's so locked into his own head that he can't even remember which orders he's given to others; he's somehow surprised that Bates can't follow the order of radioing for reinforcements because Bates has already followed the order of disabling all radios (though Perkins has perhaps interpreted "disable" rather more violently than necessary). Ace realises they'll have a greater chance at survival if Captain Sorin can be enlisted to help. Millington immediately locks him up. Two Russian soldiers have shown up to help fight off horrific unkillable Viking vampires. Millington sacrifices them because... well, because he doesn't see what's in for him in doing otherwise. It's not that he's a subscriber to the theory that sometimes you have to sacrifice people to save the ship - that's pretty much undeniable - it's that he clearly doesn't feel any empathy towards the people he's sealing off. It's just a cost of doing business, and not much of a cost at that [1]. This kind of cold-blooded approach, where you sacrifice people not because it's necessary but because it's convenient is the ultimate endpoint of where the Seventh Doctor might one day head if he doesn't have his head knocked into shape, and the show is smart enough to point this out by pretty much immediately following Millington's speech about having to seal sailors in with a fire with Kathleen Dudman's devastation upon learning her sailor husband has been sealed in by a fire.

But we also know what's fundamentally different about the Doctor and Millington. What the Doctor most completely has faith in is his friends. In co-operation. He might be struggling in this incarnation to express this, but it's still clearly where he puts his stock (compare this with Millington, who resents being reminded about the past). Indeed, it's notable that the two characters in this episode who successfully stop the Haemovores with faith do so through belief in the power of co-operation. Yes, it's perfectly clear and has been for decades that the Russian revolution ushered in something light years away from what Communism is supposed to be - total co-operation on a national scale, a hundred million people working towards the common good - but for Captain Sorin, in 1943, the dream is still alive and, more to the point, still worth believing in. Meanwhile, poor Reverend Wainwright is killed because his faith has been ruined by countries so disinterested in co-operation they're murdering each other's children. The "warm, friendly place" of his past has long since faded, and he can no longer bring himself to believe in good when everything about him has gone to hell and all anyone seems to care about is how much of that hell they can rule over amidst the flames.

In short, the Doctor maintains as always the best of motives, but his actions have made him part of the problem (it's never commented on, but how many people are murdered by Haemovores set loose because he didn't bother telling Ace about the runes' true purpose?) up until now. Ace gets to point this out, and in the process demonstrate an alternative, more fruitful approach. Ace is no longer helping the Doctor by following his instructions, she's bringing her own ideas to the table. It's tempting to suggest what was modelled on a father-daughter relationship has now become instead a true partnership. But really, the whole point of father-daughter relationships is that they become true partnerships, or at least they're supposed to. The goal of raising a child is to do it well enough that they can ultimately live from outside your authority, and to voluntarily relinquish that authority when that's what is needed.

It's needed now. Ace is ready. She's just not quite aware of how completely the authority needs to be withdrawn. It can be a painful process. But it has to happen. It is time for the one, final game.

Episode 4: Sh*t-Hot Pawn

In which the Prisoner's Dilemma becomes a game of chess.

I confess, my utter devotion to this story notwithstanding, I've never been a huge fan of the contest. Chess might have rhetorical weight (as Vershinin demonstrates), but a quick look at the Doctor's set-up demonstrates that there are something in the region of eight legal moves for black and six for white. Discovering there is no way to win within the rules takes all of twenty seconds. And when you conclude there exists no legal victory within a single move, you can pretty much make up any solution you like. Why announce the correct solution is for the white pawn to take his own king? Why not just have the black pawns able to move like knights?

(Also, the board isn't set up for the black and white pawns to join forces, so much as the black pawns sitting on their backsides whilst the white pawn murders his king. But I digress...)

But of course, that's just the price we have to pay for the endgame. The specific nature of the Doctor's solution makes sense because he flat-out refuses to accept the very idea of situations in which co-operation is impossible. Chess is a zero-sum game just as surely as the Prisoner's Dilemma, and the Doctor will have none of it. Fenric is at the opposite end of the scale, of course, to the point where he can giggle evilly whilst using the solution Ace accidentally gave him and not for a second wonder if his own pawn might have similar designs. Thoroughly in keeping with the WWII setting, this is a story in part about Fenric's refusal over and over again to learn the same lessons.

(I've never understood exactly what's going on with the Ancient One, actually. The Doctor's conversation with him simultaneously suggests that he comes from 500 000 years in the future and is the product of industry gone mad, but also suggests he's a product of Fenric's plot to dump poison into the sea. I don't see how it can be both. The best I can come up with is that if the Ancient One goes through with Fenric's plan, he'll never be created, since life 500 000 years from now is about to become a total impossibility, but if so, it's a hell of a risk to take that a being who's seen his whole world die would be particularly attached to the idea of not being erased from existence).

It's also, perhaps, about the importance of paying attention to your pawns. Or is it? After all, that's not really a very progressive message. Viewed from one angle, it could actually just boil down to a suggestion evil overlords ramp up the paranoia. This is where Ace enters the narrative. Because up until now in this story, referring to Ace as the Doctor's pawn wouldn't be completely ridiculous. Indeed, the very fact that the Doctor manages to break down Ace's faith in him so easily suggests Ace believed herself she was just a playing piece; hence why the Doctor's suggestion he merely needed to use her proves so devastating. This suggestion is added to by the fact that Ace is literally blocking the Ancient One from making his move, like one pawn standing in another's way on the chess board.

Briggs, of course, is setting this implication up so that he can smash it apart. The lesson to learn here is not that pawns can turn against you, or even that they can work together for their common good; it's that people are not and have never been pawns. It isn't just Fenric's goals that are horrfic, it's his treatment of his unwitting allies as disposable playing pieces. Indeed, there is no goal so necessary or so virtuous that it can justify utilising people as pawns (as oppose to recognising that there are circumstances when human beings will have to be sacrificed to prevent some greater loss of life). The Doctor is forced into suggesting he approves of so disgraceful a practice so as to make his true feelings as clear as they ultimately are. But it's also a reminder that the Doctor has frankly been coming too close with his behaviour lately. Like I said, pretending to be a manipulative b****** couldn't work so well if there wasn't some reason to find it credible.

But let's stop and think about why the Doctor might be manipulative. It is, after all, self-evident that he isn't in it for the same reasons as Fenric is. In the Doctor's case, whatever tendencies he has in that direction are borne from the belief he knows what's best for everyone. Which is less the attitude of a king marshaling his pawns than a parent fussing over his children. Which is clearly preferable, but still sooner or later becomes a problem, and that's what we have on our hands here. The nature of this story as a coming-of-age tale for Ace has been exhaustively detailed, of course, so I won't belabour the point, but let's note one last time that the point at which Ace comes into her own is when she demands communication, and proves herself entirely capable of handling it. Because communication is once again the goal here, whether it's the conversation with the Ancient One that defeats Fenric before he even realises what's happening, or the melancholy exchange atop a rock jutting out into Maiden's Bay, we are strongest when we cooperate.

We are strongest when we talk. 

[1] A brief political aside; this is why the hawks/Tories of the world are so utterly unbearable. Not because they believe that we can somehow improve the world by bombing foreigners/slashing benefits for the disabled, but because they're so unaccountably unbearably smug about it. You can take a choice that will make specific people's lives worse and it still be the right thing to do. If you make that choice with George Osbourne's superior sneer of GW Bush's witless grin on your face, you are a terrible human being, irrespective of how well the choice pans out.

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