Tuesday, 6 October 2015

You Dream About Going Up There

"Darling it's better down where it's wetter." And we teach this filth to kids.

(Who spoilers below)

That was... unusual.

Except really it was only unusual in how usual it was. This is Who doing something it used to do all the time; taking advantage of a multiple episode story to spend the first instalment setting up dominoes. This is something RTD dabbled in at best, and something Moffat has more or less abandoned totally, stating somewhere (I forget the specifics) that the only way a Doctor Who two-parter can possibly work post-Rose is if each instalment is radically different in tone to the previous one. In other words, you make a two-parter work by making it as little like a two-parter as you possibly can.

Moffat's approach doesn't come through particularly strongly here, with the episode content to show us its two big ideas - underwater ghosts and automatic message recognition - and otherwise mainly just trade in the atmospherics generated by an admittedly well-designed set. To the degree "Under the Lake" does try to follow its showrunner's advice, its in attempting the 7-10 split of trying to set up something completely new in the second episode whilst still presumably making use of the same locations/props as what came before to save on money. It's an interesting approach. But the use of time travel to set up an inverted narrative structure with cause explored after effect runs the risk of being far less clever than it initially sounds. It's just as easy to view causes after effects through flashbacks or, to use a more common sci-fi horror approach (which is what fundamentally this is modeled upon), found footage.

For all that the Blair Witch Project was the first hit movie to make use of found footage its central trick (though it wasn't the first; check out the sublime The Last Broadcast sometime to see it actually done right), the basic idea of generating chills via recordings of previous horrifying events long predates the horror film, or moving images in general. At the absolute least, we'd have to go back to Dracula and the log book of the Demeter, a rhetorical trick so powerful "The Curse of Fenric" (to continue our watery-Who theme) replicated it on a shoestring more than ninety-two years later and it was still as unsettling as all hell. These days, though, as noted, the found records are most frequently in the form of videos, which makes the amount of time spent in "Under The Lake" looking at slightly grainy, filtered footage of dark corridors rather interesting. There's an obvious remove when looking at a television screen through a television screen, and yet the result is somehow more effecting rather than less, because we share the status of the characters watching. They have no more control than we do, which means we have as much control as them. Somehow removing the narrative by a further step draws us deeper into it (an important device here, since the ghosts not only don't cause much damage during the episode, but explicitly refuse to kill one half of the people they get the chance to).

I've talked about all this before, of course, but it feels particularly appropriate here. Firstly because of the aforementioned link to studying cause only once effect is clear, but because of the episode's focus on broadcasting information. In an otherwise rather uncomplicated episode, the idea of a message one automatically understands upon seeing and automatically repeats upon dying is a fascinating one, especially when you consider the make-up of the base crew.

Which is handy, because it's really the crew that I want to talk about here. In particular, it's worth noting that in an episode featuring seven speaking roles, only two of them go to white men, both of whom are apparently dead by the end of the episode. That's a truly wonderful realisation even before we give this further props for including a deaf character and actress. The episode has come under criticism for killing the black character first, and I fully understand why that's a big problem. That said, there is actually a reading of the episode that helps explain the mistake (I won't say mitigates it). What I loved about this episode is that it is set only 104 years in the future, and white men have implicitly become a minority. Not even no longer a plurality; the base has no more white men that is has deaf women. The message is clear; we might have owned the past, but the future belongs to others. This hostility to white men and their "me first" attitude (note how Pritchard is the only person aboard a petroleum company instillation to fit into the arsehole capitalist mold) quickly gets Pritchard killed (unlike Bennet Lunn, who the ghosts let live), and even the Doctor's role here is to literally return to the past whilst the future goes on without him.

So how does Moran's death feed into this? By the fact of him dying and yet not going away. Moran's death (apparently an accident, leaving Pritchard the only person we see murdered in the whole episode) erases the black voice from the narrative, in classic racist tradition, except that it doesn't work. Moran haunts the narrative that has rejected him; his death in extra-diagetic terms being a crime just like Pritchard's unfeeling avarice is within it.

I confess to kind of liking this as an idea. Certainly ghosts of black people in fiction are a rare thing. But the argument runs up against an immediate problem, which is that it clashes totally with the idea that the narrative is better served with the white dudes gone. Seeing Moran and Pritchard as metaphors for the past of their respective ethnic groups puts the oppressor and the oppressed in the exact same position. You could perhaps get around this by arguing that the damage done to global storytelling by white dominance is something that haunts us just as much as the minimising of black voice and agency does, but I find that unconvincing, if in no small part because the fate of Moran does in fact silence him. He haunts the narrative but cannot comment on it. Actually, it's perhaps even worse than silence; now he's just saying the exact same thing the white guy is.

So whilst I see Moran's fate as being something more than straight-up unthinking bullshit [1] the episode doesn't make it work. If the two characters were the same ethnicity (or indeed only one had died) then the episode could be said to be saying something coherent about ghosts - though only in one case would the message be free from major problems [2]. Here though, to return to the theme of broadcasts, we're seeing destructive interference; two potential themes interfering with each other to generate white (hah!) noise. All that is left is the sour taste left by a racist trope that, whilst not necessarily left unexamined, certainly hasn't had anything near sufficient thought put into its deconstruction.

This is particularly frustrating in this story, because the whole focus is on messages that resonate whether you want them to or not. This is all about being exposed to ideas that, even if you don't understand them, you completely internalise them, which makes racist tropes even more of a problem than they would be otherwise. Furthermore, this is a missed opportunity insofar as there's so obviously a racial angle to the idea of such a message. The scrawl on the alien spaceship isn't just a psychic meme, it's revelation. It's something that you see and changes you profoundly even before you wholly or even mostly grasp the significance of. But once you achieve that revelation, you become responsible for how you respond. Something it was completely understandable (which is not to say acceptable or forgivable) for you to not engage with the day before suddenly requires thought if you are to be anything but contemptible, to the point where the ghosts are apparently hunting down certain kinds of people who aren't yet repeating the message with sufficient force.

So what is this message? The message that once you here it you have to engage with it fully and alter your mindset accordingly. What could be so important that from the moment you see it, you have to constantly repeat it to yourself, over and over, so that the message is heard not just by those around you but by your own small, selfish, distracted mind?

"You have white privilege."

[1] Doubtless there was also an intended shock factor in having the most well-known cast member not dressed as a space-rat undertaker die almost immediately. I'd also point out that the very idea of a black ghost is somewhat unusual - at least outside the form of a vengeful spirit attacking racists that actually manages to further racist tropes - albeit as people have pointed out to me on various social media sites, far from unheard of (must... read... Beloved). It would be stretching the point massively to quip that I saw more black ghosts on the base monitors than I have in 17 years of watching horror films, but it's not a comment without weight (how much of that is my own fault, of course...). Still, the idea of the Unquiet Spirit of Black Exclusion From Literature strikes me as a bloody brilliant idea; a ghost representing in part the lack of ghosts like themselves. 

[2] Though the fact I can argue there's a point the episode might have been trying to make that were ethnicities changed could still be considered in a similar form rather suggests that either a) the episode just isn't doing anything with sufficient coherence to make a useful racial reading stick, or b) you could do so and I've just completely missed the point.

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