Sunday, 5 July 2015

Not So Monstrous After All

"I am a mole and I live in a hole. With badgers. Wait, is that Man-Bear-Pig? ARRRRGH!"
I really wasn't looking forward to "Monster of Peladon". A six-part dose of what everyone seems to agree is, at best, the second most wretched stretch of Pertwee action during his whole half-decade tenure? Not really my cup of space-tea. But, acquiring this was the price of getting hold of "Curse of Peladon" (in addition to the more obvious price of, you know, money and stuff), so like a good Yorkshireman [1] I gritted my teeth and sat down to see if the money I'd spent on this disc would be best recouped by keeping it for entertainment purposes, or hanging it in a tree to upset nearby squirrels.

Here's the thing, though. I don't think it's at all bad. In fact, there's quite a lot I like about it. It has a lot of flaws, certainly; I've no intention of arguing it's an above average Pertwee outing. But it's far from the unbearable car-crash it's been painted as by everyone whose opinion on the subject I've encountered.

So there was nothing for it, then, but to remind why people didn't like it and figure out what I was missing. I started, as usual, with Phil Sandifer's blog, given the man is a) fiercely smart, b) pretty close to me politically speaking, and c) very keen on trying to write positive readings of generally hated stories. Usually, if he can't redeem something, it can't be redeemed.

To summarise, Sandifer's objections here can be broken down into three issues, the structure, the length, and the political subtext. That's not quite the order he does it in, but it suits the flow of this post to tackle them in that order. So, structure first. The big complaint here is that "Monster..." pulls the exact same trick as "Curse..." by setting up two villains, one plainly obvious to the viewer, the other revealed only late in the day. In "Curse..." it is obvious to everyone watching that Hepesh is up to no good, and the same is true of Azaxyr and his shock troops in "Monster...", which returns the Ice Warriors to the status of obvious villains.  Sandifer makes it clear that his objection here isn't in who turns out to be the secret villain (he describes the Eckersley reveal as rather clever), but in who the obvious one is.  Even so, though, whilst we're discussing obviousness, let's talk about how much better "Monster..." pulls off its reveal than does its predecessor. This, for the uninitiated, is Arcturus.

Note the green-brown skin tone, the seaweed-frond tentacles, the staring eyes and skull face.  If there is a central, neutral point for mollusc-like aliens, Alpha Centauri and Arcturus are far from it as possible in opposing directions. There is simply no way to look at this thing and not see it as encoded for villainy. This is basically a Dalek in the Skaro equivalent of a bubble car (he even sounds rather Dalek-like). Nor is Arcturus' attitude anything more than unpleasant throughout. He is disguised as a villain only by the Ice Warriors being the more obvious choice, and even then, there's no reason to not think Arcturus is in on the plot to destabilise the situation.  The Ice Warriors are a distraction, but revealing Arcturus as a villain is not in any sense a surprise - evilness is what sinister tentacle-skulls in cut-price Mark III Travel Machines do.

Compare this with the revelation late in "Monster..." that Eckersley is a villain. That's a genuine surprise, because the coding has suggested nothing like it up until then. Arcturus looked like a monster who might not actually turn out to be one (which when he doesn't somewhat undermines "Curse..."'s point about the Ice Warriors). Eckersley was a friend to the heroes who was working undercover all along. Suggesting this is somehow an inferior re-tread of "Curse..."'s central trick does the latter story a colossal disservice.

As I say though, Sandifer does note how well Eckersley works, saving the majority of his ire for the major step backwards the story takes with regard to the Ice Warriors. Here, we are much in agreement. The revelation that Doctor Who monsters could graduate into actual characters - actual people - was one of the very best ideas in "Curse of Peladon", and to see them slide back into villainy here is a real shame.  It's worth noting, though, that the regression is not complete. Azaxyr is no more monstrous a villain than is Eckersley. Indeed, you could replace the rebel Ice Warriors with rebel Federation humans and no-one would suggest the story featured unconvincingly simplistic villains (they might complain about other things, of course, like how interesting could three episodes of angry humans being dicks to a giant dick possibly be?). Count how many Who stories involve a human traitor working for alien aggressors. Now count how many of those stories don't feature the human traitor being betrayed by his erstwhile extra-terrestrial allies? As classic Who monsters go, this batch of Ice Warriors are comparatively subtle.  Which is to say whilst a return to villainy for the sons of Mars is a genuine disappointment, it is certainly not the case that they have returned to being mere monsters. One wonders how much better this story might be regarded had the Ice Warriors returned to the show before the Matt Smith years, both as protagonists and antagonists. After all, aliens who are always good are no less reductive and frustrating than those that are always evil.

In short then, whilst Sandifer clearly has a point about how poorly served the Ice Warriors are here, I think it's a criticism that's overplayed, particularly when you consider the real differences between "Curse..." and "Monster...".  Let's talk about the issue of additional length [2]. I'm completely in agreement with Sandifer that Who six-parters are almost always cursed with at least one entirely unnecessary episode that could easily be cut with only minimal changes to the other instalments. This story is no exception, with episode five advancing the plot not one bit beyond the Eckersley reveal. Which is great, obviously, but it wouldn't take much rewriting at all to stick it in at the end of episode four, instead of all that bollocks involving Ettis (which we'll come back to).  But to argue that this story is basically a repeat of "Curse..." but slower is entirely inaccurate. "Monster..." is longer because of what it includes that "Curse..." didn't bother itself at all with: the working class.

Adding the miners to the culture of Peladon is, at least on paper, an absolutely brilliant move. Indeed, it's so strong that I actually found myself unhappy when the Ice Warriors arrived, since it interrupted an unfolding tale of class struggle that I was very much enjoying, The biggest flaw of "Curse Of Peladon" was that it boiled down to a bunch of aristocrats and other powerful men arguing about whether joining a larger community was in their best interests. To link it to the EEC metaphor everyone seems in agreement about being the driving force here, "Curse..." was about whether Edward Heath would win out over his back-benchers in trying to mould the Conservative Party into something marginally less utterly worthless. What's truly important about the sequel isn't that it's a shame the bunch of nice and peaceful Ice Warriors have been replaced with belligerent murderous arseholes, it's that the two groups are indistinguishable from the miner's perspective. What possible difference can it make to them how personally pleasant their overlords' foreign allies are? They're clearly being screwed over either way. Whilst life has seemingly improved for the Peladon aristocracy (everyone seems very keen on continuing to make kissy-faces at the Federation, at least), things have gotten worse for the miners both because they're under more pressure to deliver and also because men like Autron can now blame the Feds for the miners' punishing, risky schedules instead of accepting responsibility himself. Of course inserting that layer to the story requires more episodes.

All of which brings us to the nub of Sandifer's anger: what is being suggested by the miner storyline.  Sandifer's objections are rooted both in cosmetics and subtext.  For the former, he objects to the miners all sporting the same look (leather-loving badgers), having harsh, guttural names in comparison to the aristocratic characters, and talking with "comedy" working class accents throughout the story. In truth, I'm not sure I agree at all on the accents front; it's clear the miners are supposed to represent coal miners, and so have the kind of accents coal miners did. I don't detect anything comedic there, or at least to the extent to which I do it seems far more plausible to blame limitations in acting ability rather than a deliberate dig at the working class. Without wishing to go too far down the "what does he know?" road, I do think it's interesting that there's no mention of dodgy accents here, in a blog written (like this one) by people who are actually from the same sorts of area as the miners in question.  The comment about naming conventions is a more interesting one, though it strikes me, possibly naively, as an open question as to why the ears of English speakers prefer softer consonants and long vowel sounds in names. The chances of this being entirely or even mostly independent of the class divide strike me as not high. As I say, though, that could easily be my ignorance talking.

Either way, the point about uniformity strikes me as a much stronger one. This is definitely a real problem. One could try to argue I suppose that the differences between Queen Thalia's costume and that of Autron's are down to gender rather than any class issue, but that feels like a cop-out. And even were it true, designing upper-class costumes that are indistinguishable would be far less problematic than doing the same thing for the workers, just like the stereotypes of American and British people in "Tomb of the Cybermen" are vastly less problematic than its treatment of Toberman. Stereotyping and simplifying the powerful is different to stereotyping and simplifying the powerless (though a single line somewhere about how the miners are told to dress identically would work wonders here). I won't in any sense try to defend the practice.

On the other hand, though, I will point out how pervasive it is. If we want to tear apart science-fiction shows for pushing the idea that alien cultures are essentially uniform - and by Gods, we absolutely should be doing that - there are much better targets than '70s Who. What matters here is whether the use of that alien race (or class, as here) justifies the underlying problems generated by pretending cultures other than your own are less subtle or complicated than your own. In fairness, I've absolutely no doubt Sandifer knows this, but felt no need to discuss it since he believes the use the miners are being put to is so wrong-headed and unpleasant in any case. My point here then is that many if not all of Sandifer's complaints about the cosmetic issues surrounding the miners can be overridden if the political subtext is less howlingly Godsawful than Sandifer believes.

And I think it is less awful. Or at least, there's a plausible argument that it is. Sandifer's focus here is on the fact that the new dangers facing the miners is secretly agitation from outside agents, reducing the striking miners to dupes accidentally carrying out the wishes of the enemy, exactly the sort of paranoid fantasy the right likes to spread around whenever people try to stand up for to a cruelly disinterested government. It's a valid reading, and were I to subscribe to it I'd be no less outraged than Sandifer is.  But I see things rather differently. I see the sudden attacks of Agaddor as a necessary narrative shorthand for demonstrating how dangerous life has become for the miners because of outside interference. The fact that this particular bunch of aliens is the enemy of the Federation matters very little in my reading, precisely because the Federation itself is so far from being innocent when it comes to risking the miners' lives. Yes, the sonic lance is intended to help the miners out, but there's no reason to believe it will help with regards to safety, as oppose to yield. The trisilicate might flow faster with the lance in operation, but does that mean anything more than that the miners are risking the same horrible fates in exchange for more profits they'll never get to share in. Indeed there's every reason to believe the sonic lance would make things even more dangerous; point it in the wrong direction, someone's gonna get killed. There's no evidence life as Federation citizens has caused any class migration on Peladon, so much as entrenched the class system whilst pushing extra toys as a distraction. What's truly obnoxious about spreading the lie that miners are striking because foreign powers want them to is that it elides the simple truth that those foreign powers are actually much less dangerous to the miners than their own government is. 

And there is evidence here that the script gets this. As Sandifer notes, the Doctor is unambiguously on the side of the miners from the very beginning, and maintains that stance even after he spends time with the absolute least sympathetic of the miners, who beats the crap out of him for a chance to murder dozens of people including Sarah Jane.  The Doctor is aware from jump that the miners are being used by an outside force, but at absolutely no point does he even imply that matters. What matters to him is that the miners concerns are addressed. Because it doesn't matter to him whether the miners are threatened by alien saboteurs or just the kind of standard horrors a life in the pits involves; if the miners have had enough he is 100% behind them. Sure, a cuddly were-boar showing up and zapping people makes for more interesting television than continual cave-ins or suffocation by gas or the slow, hideous fate of coughing your lungs up piece by piece, so that's what we get. But the subtext is clear: mining is dangerous as fuck, and a miner's life is almost never held as more valuable than the rocks he's carving out of the earth. That doesn't mean the link to the "enemy agent" lie has no weight, of course. But to me it's a bum note sounded by a combination of instruments playing perfectly sensible tunes which at a single point combine to sound discordant and ugly.

Which isn't to say I think the miners' tale is free from its problems. I'm completely with Sandifer when he calls bullshit on the character of Ettis, apparently a transparent caricature of Arthur Scargill (not that Sandifer's opinions on Scargill are all that great either). I didn't mention it above, but the whole "I'll kill everyone in the citadel!" idea is ferociously awful. But even were this not a hit-job on a specific human being, it would suck. It's not that there isn't a level of militancy so pronounced it can become self-defeating and destructive, it's that the working class don't need this pointed out to them by smug middle-class television writers. It's patronising crap, and feeds into a larger problem here. Still, at least the Doctor entirely avoids the standard mistake of using Ettis' actions as a cudgel to beat the rest of the miners with. And if we are to see Ettis as Scargill, the fact that his ultimate fate is to be murdered by vicious authorities with no interest in the miners as people is a surprisingly dark and leftist one, even if it here its unfortunately framed as an act of self-defence.

But yes, I started talking about a larger problem. Sandifer nails this one already, so I need only summarise: this is yet another entry in an exhaustively long list of stories insisting the right thing to do is sit down and chat about your problems. Which yes, all things being equal is the best approach. But the whole point here is that things aren't equal. A dialogue, by definition, requires two people, and frequently there's no reason for the more powerful side to engage in that dialogue when they can marshal their vast resources to get what they want some other way. Just look at how easy it was for Eckersley to persuade Alpha Centauri that the miners obstreperousness requires a military response. The arrival of the Ice Warriors is no different to the arrival of the riot police: when you lecture the miners (or the suffragettes, or the civil rights marchers, or the...) on the importance of talking over violence, you are demanding they not fight in a war the other side started.  Fuck literally every inch of that.

Again, though,  the question is whether the mistake is so egregious that it means it would have been better to have never considered the miners at all. And I just don't see that as the case here. Yes, there are huge problems with how Hayles/Dicks approaches the tricky subject of industrial action, but at least it's there. At least the effects of political manoeuvring on the people is being considered, rather than completely ignored (hell, "Curse of Peladon" went so far as to have the only character one could plausibly consider working class to be literally unable to speak). In terms of becoming an ally, the first stage after ignoring someone's struggle is to want to to help but have absolutely no clue about how best to do it. That's "Monster..." for me, a well-meaning attempt to portray the miners' problems that stumbles badly because of how undeveloped the writers' grasp of the situation is.  Were something like "Monster..." to be released in 2015, I'd smash it into the ground. But the television landscape of today is all but unrecognisable in comparison to the television landscape of 1974; the idea that we should actually figure out what the concerns of the working class are and address them wasn't being tried all that often (not that we can pat ourselves on the back too hard even now; we still have to wade through crap like Downton Abbey). Phil pours scorn on Sarah-Jane's admittedly clumsy attempts to spread women's lib to Peladon, but where he sees the line "There is nothing 'only' about being a miner any more than there is about being a girl" as undercutting an otherwise glorious message about respect for the workers, I see it as strengthening it. It's a reminder that judging someone by nothing but their job should be as self-evidently ridiculous and awful as judging someone by nothing but their gender (and hell, it's not like being reminded to not be a sexist arsehole wasn't worth doing at the time, or indeed now).  If the language used is clumsy, over-earnest, and unsophisticated, well, that's what we got here.  I flatly refuse to believe it would have been better to never say it at all.

Which, in the end, describes "The Monster of Peladon" very well; a deliberate attempt to say something that needed saying, and which the show had failed to say the last time around. The fact it's said so badly isn't something that should be ignored, but it's still a sign of progress, which is exactly the sort of thing we're supposed to be all about.

[1] On my mother's side. My father is a Teessider, a combination which means I have a third lung for filtering smog, but I'm angry that there's no way I can use it to save money. 

[2] This would seem to be the most common complaint amongst those who lack Phil's fury at the political undertones of the story. And there must be plenty of those people around. We are, let's not forget, talking about a fandom in which a non-trivial proportion of members refuse point-blank to consider the possibility that "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is racist.

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