Friday, June 22, 2007

Immortality Nerve

[First posted in the week of "Utopia".]

This week: anthropology.

In his book Total Man, slightly-hippy psychologist Stan Gooch examined the genetic roots of some of our best-loved clichés and archetypes, and spent much of his time dwelling on the science-fiction stories of the day. The day in question was sometime in the early 1970s, but very little has changed, even if it's got noticeably worse. In Gooch's view, a great deal of (perhaps even the majority of) published SF was about the schism between mind and body, presumably - and to be honest, this is my interpretation more than his - because SF gives the writer free reign to separate human thought from human weakness and imagine that we really are bundles of intelligence weighed down by ugly, clunking bodies. Of course, Gooch was writing in the shadow of 2001, when transcending your biology and becoming a Starchild was all the rage. But if he'd been writing just a decade later later, in the wake of Star Wars and Yoda's 'luminous beings are we' speech, then the book might have been twice the length. We can also safely assume that in "trash" sci-fi, the kind that used to be summed up by the term "B-movie" in the days before it was replaced by the phrase "straight to video", the same rules apply. All alien takeovers, and all alien parasites, exist in the make-believe gap between our consciousness and our flesh-suits. Possession is nine-tenths of science fiction, as I pointed out in the mid-1990s, before some divot made exactly the same joke in The Science of Star Trek.

The usual approach to "possession and infestation" SF is to blame it on trendy social phobias, but this misses the big picture. Modern-day anxieties are used to justify these stories, they're not the root inspiration. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is supposedly "about" the late-'50s fear of Commie infiltration, while Alien is "about" the late-'70s fear of cancer, venereal disease, and other things that eat you from the inside out, but the same unseen hand is guiding both. (We forget, now, that people refused to even mention cancer until about thirty years ago. One of my aunts died of it, and as a child, I didn't have a clue what was going on: I knew she was dying, yet the name of the killer was never spoken. The 1970s changed this, not least because feminists were determined to talk about a blight that often attacked parts of their bodies unknown to men, parts which were as taboo as the cancer itself. It's not always easy to think of Alien as a product of feminism, especially when Sigourney Weaver's running around in her pants.) By the early 1980s, alien bodysnatching had largely become an exercise in effects one-upmanship, hence John Carpenter's version of The Thing and the rather mendacious advertising claim that it "makes Alien look like Peter Rabbit". By the time we get to CGI-driven cackpole like The Faculty, the idea of something with tentacles living inside your gut has become more mundane than anything in any soap opera, so its usefulness as a political allegory is in some doubt.

Not that it stops people trying. Circa 2007, the most obvious manifestation of this pretend-satirical form of sci-fi is the fetid husk of Battlestar Galactica, in which aliens disguised as humans are supposedly a reflection of contemporary concerns about lurking terrorists. This falls apart, however, when you remember that followers of al-Qaeda - and the word is "followers", not "members", since it's a cultural movement rather than an organisation and you can't have a "war on al-Qaeda" any more than you can have a "war on goths" - really don't look, sound or act like anybody else. The "goths" comparison is a good one, because just as no goth would be able to exist without the need for make-up and the obsession with cod-romanticism slowly making themselves felt, Islamic extremists would be unlikely to infiltrate a high-security installation without giving their co-workers some clue as to their true nature. They certainly wouldn't be able to compromise a whole fleet of spaceships. The Cylons aren't the manifestation of the twenty-first-century Enemy Within, they're the result of something much bigger and much less specific.

And what about Doctor Who? The type of people who write this series are not, by any means, the type of people who might have right-wing anxieties about foreign infiltration. I'll gloss over the old argument about "The Unquiet Dead", because even if you take a view as zealous as mine, Mark Gatiss was only being careless rather than genuinely paranoid. The programme's contempt for the reds-under-the-bed / Mullahs-in-the-mall idea is fairly clear, at least in its modern incarnation. If you can ignore "The Web Planet" and "The Dominators", then even '60s Doctor Who tends to avoid the xenophobia angle: in the midst of the Cold War, the mind-control storylines on Patrick Troughton's watch owe more to tales of World War Two fifth-columnists than Russian spies, and brainwashing is more often an issue of social control than a tactic of devious foreign agents. Returning to the present, though, the fact remains that the series is still obsessed with mind-tampering and still doesn't seem to be doing it because of "current concerns". There are few terrorists in the Doctor Who universe, in the Blairite sense of the word "terrorist". Indeed, the Slitheen are quite the opposite, alien parasites who take on the form of John Prescott rather than Abu Hamza. To Hell with it, the very first episode of the modern-day series involves the Doctor going on a bombing spree in London. Contrary to what various lazy commentators tried to claim at the time, this doesn't make him a terrorist ("terrorist" means "someone who uses terror as a weapon of political control", not "someone who uses explosives"… otherwise, Fred Dibnah would have spent most of his life in an H-block), but it does mean that he's more closely associated with the iconography of terrorism than the baddies are.

Remember what Gooch said: it's all about mind / body dualism, which means that anything involving an Inner Monster comes from the same complex of ideas, whether it's something nasty hiding in your DNA or an extra-terrestrial gas getting up your nose and controlling your actions. When you realise this, you realise that in Season X3 of Doctor Who - yes, that's what it's called, shut up - virtually every story has used exactly the same trick. Only "Gridlock" and "Blink", that well-known firm of solicitors, are exempt. The Plasmavore in "Smith and Jones" is acceptable, since it's just a single sci-fi detail in a story which also involves Vogon-rhino crossbreeds and a hospital on the moon (and which is mainly focused on the humanoid characters anyway). But then we get alien witches who can shape-change into pretty serving-wenches, zombie workers somehow "infected" with Dalek DNA, Professor Lazarus unleashing his Inner Scorpion, an intelligent sun that even goes as far as using the old "possessed people have glowing eyes" gimmick, and the bodysnatching antics of the Family of Blood. All of these are expressions of the same basic idea, and even "Blink" has to be removed from the list of honourable exceptions when you realise that inanimate-objects-with-a-life-of-their-own can be seen as part of the same complex.

You don't believe that…? Well, until the 1960s, you might have been right. But once the Cold War went into techno-fetishist mode, and our culture got hooked on the idea of harmless-looking consumer goods being weapons in disguise, the line between "enemy agents" and "enemy devices" was erased forever. Wasn't it Frank Herbert who said that the most important thing to notice about computers is the way they condition people to treat other people like machines? It's no coincidence that the same era which gave us cheap, pocket-sized electronics also gave us the notion of cybernetic spacemen, or that we've been obsessed with technological polymorphism ever since. This is what Salman Rushdie was getting at, in the chapter of The Satanic Verses that mentions "The Mutants", since Rushdie wasn't paying attention to the plot and thought the Mutts were supposed to be human-machine hybrids (not noticing that this was the Doctor Who story inspired by the end of the British Empire in India, ironic for the author of Midnight's Children). Even Tranformers can be seen as a knock-on effect of this. All human devices are in some way extensions of the human body, yet the link between man and machine seems so much more direct if the device is a spy-camera or a hidden microphone, and we can imagine it being an extendable eye or ear.

Take another look at "Spearhead from Space", in which it's taken for granted that any power capable of making killer mannequins is obviously going to make duplicate politicians as well. Just ten years earlier, no story of that kind would have been made: either the aliens would have been able to take people over, or some unseen force would have been able to make inanimate objects come to life, but not both. In 1960, nobody would have connected the two (c.f. the Twilight Zone episode "A Thing About Machines", in which we see an electric razor slithering up the stairs to kill its owner, but it's animated by his own sense of fear rather than an evil corporation with extra-terrestrial connections). The Weeping Angels in "Blink" are apparently much more low-tech, yet they're still designed to hit exactly the same nerve as the Autons. The final montage makes this clear, sending out a message of "hey kids, never look at statues the same way again!" in much the same way that "Spearhead" sends out a message of "they're just shop-window dummies… or are they?".

(One more question about possession here, since I've already mentioned "42". Why does it make people's eyes glow? If there's some kind of sun-energy inside the victim, then why does it shine through the eyeballs, and not through any of the other soft tissues? Do their genitals glow as well? Why are skimpy little bits of skin like the eyelids enough to stop the light? If you tug on one of your eyelids and point a torch at it, then you can clearly see the illumination on the other side, at least until you go blind. So how do eyelids manage to break the flow of energy? Is it a quantum thing? And if eyeball-flesh is so sensitive to the presence of an alien, then why don't the eyes burn out completely when somebody's possessed, instead of returning to normal afterwards? Blah blah blah windows of the soul blah blah blah iconic imagery blah blah blah cheap special effect.)

So what is it we're supposed to be so scared of? If, indeed, we're supposed to be scared at all? As I've already suggested, I'm not convinced that this is really about fear. "Blink" may be a self-conscious attempt to freak out the six-year-olds, but despite claims to the contrary in the Radio Times, the Lazarus Horror isn't remotely scary: it's so far-removed from actual human experience, and so obviously belongs in the kind of world we see in both modern SF movies and modern TV advertising, that it becomes an abstract quantity. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in theory, even if it's clearly a bad thing in "The Lazarus Experiment". As Tat Wood pointed out in his article "Was Yeti-in-a-Loo the Worst Idea Ever?" - it's in About Time Volume II, you don't have a copy? - the idea that Doctor Who always works better when something scary happens in a down-to-earth setting is deeply flawed, and has led to some terrible errors of judgement by the programme's various production teams. This essay carries a great deal of weight, even if it isn't exactly what Tat wrote, since I had to re-draft it in order to make it readable. (You may note that the published version actually bothers to mention the twenty-first-century version of the series, and isn't too unkind, especially when it comes to the early Eccleston phase. Tat could never bring himself to write good things about Eccleston, possibly because he hates northerners and people with working-class accents, and believes the Doctor to be the exclusive property of university-educated types who spend their time arseing around on punts. I know I'm digressing, but I'm still very bitter.)

Tat's point remains a strong one, even if I want to hit him. Numerous interviews on Doctor Who Confidential have suggested that many of those involved in the programme, Big Russell and the Boy Tennant included, see the essence of the programme as being - in effect - "the incongruous inside the mundane". This is the all-purpose reasoning that's been used to justify everything from parping Raxicoricofallapatorians to monsters who can't even move when they're on-camera (yes, I know, if only they'd thought of it when they were filming the Myrka). And in principle, the programme-makers aren't wrong on this point. The very first shot of the very first episode of Doctor Who told us that something was a-humming inside an ordinary-looking police box, and a space-time machine inside a then-everyday object is as close to the central nervous system of the series as it's possible to get.

Would you see that as an extension of the same core idea, like alien possession or Optimus Prime? Robert Anton Wilson would have done. In The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, he argued that the notion of the "Trick Top Hat" is an ever-present archetype, and a metaphor for nothing less grand than the human imagination itself. On the outside we're fleshy and finite, but we're also capable of seemingly limitless diversity, a concept reflected in hundreds of folkloric stories about bags of food that never run out and cartoons about characters who can produce endless props from out of nowhere. Wilson would have mentioned Felix the Cat at this point, although I'd suggest Bender in Futurama, whose torso not only contains an infinite supply of loot but is also said to be 40% iron, 40% zinc, 40% titanium, and 40% various other things. The connection between the TARDIS and the human imagination / human unconscious seems even more obvious when you remember that it's descended from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So I'll leave it up to you to decide how closely-related this idea is to the "alien possession" concept, but bear in mind that I'm biased here. I'm the one who wrote Alien Bodies, in which the TARDISes of the future have the exterior appearance of people rather than boxes, thus becoming the missing link between possessed humanoids and magic cupboards. And a survey of fan-fiction from the 1990s reveals that I wasn't even the first one to think of it, although I didn't know this at the time. Another result for technological polymorphism.

There is, as ever, a perilously fine line between "archetype" and "cliché". I'd argue that the difference lies in the execution, not in the idea. As an example, here I'll return to something I said seven days ago, although this time in a less scurrilous context. Geeks who don't fit in with the social norm, and who have difficulty communicating with non-geeks, are a universal constant and will always be with us… assuming they aren't us. But if you're a dramatist, and you write a geek character who says exactly the same things as every other geek character on television, and who relies on exactly the same "standard nerd" jokes found in every other geek-related series - as in "Blink", or "Random Shoes", or Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any of the other sci-fi programmes which have somehow reached the conclusion that sending up the typical sci-fi viewer is post-modern and ironic instead of dull by definition - then it's a cliché. Perhaps surprisingly, exactly the same rule applies to monsters, brain-parasites, and sundry exotic space-time phenomena. In context, the Plasmavore is interesting, because it's part of something that isn't precisely like anything else. In context, the sun-bringer in "42" isn't. As if to underline this point: on the same night that BBC1 broadcast "42", Channel 4 broadcast Jason X, accidentally creating the most repetitive double-bill in TV history.

And as me-rewriting-Tat pointed out in the About Time article, it's cute and clever when the London Eye turns out to be an alien transmitter in "Rose" - even if you haven’t already seen it described as a Sontaran weapon of mass destruction in Dead Ringers - because it's not only unexpected, but a way of establishing that this programme is genuinely modern rather than just set in the present-day. When exactly the same thing happens to Alexandria Palace in "The Idiot's Lantern", it's wholly worthless. Turning the everyday into the otherworldly is a specific skill. It requires the writer to have some sense of contemporary values, rather than (say) just relying on an overweening obsession with Quatermass, but it also requires him to avoid obvious, desperate attempts at up-to-the-minute issues like "anyone you know could be a suicide bomber" or "the uncertainty of modern urban life is here represented by shape-changing robots from outer space".

It's not about "current concerns", it's not about Yeti-in-a-loo, and it's not even about scaring the kids. "The incongruous inside the mundane" is the essence of Doctor Who because Doctor Who relies on the most primal, mythic imagery in order to function, and for human beings, there's nothing more primal than that mind / body divide: it's the thing that's been with us ever since we started to use tools, ever since our ancestors began to realise that a big sharp rock could become an extension of the human body, and thus reached the conclusion that the body itself is just a tool of an invisible, untouchable Inner Self which somehow pulls all the levers. The divide is human culture, in a way. It's the notion that's shaped all our ideas about identity and society, even though it doesn't really exist. From the Trick Top Hat of the TARDIS to the vulnerable, techno-dependent squid-horror of the Daleks, this programme has spent more than forty years working on the same primal impulse, and dear God it sounds as if I'm writing the closing speech of a BBC4 documentary now. But even the Doctor himself, a man who gets a new body at irregular intervals while somehow keeping the same indefinable core of Doctoryness, can't survive without that imagery. If you are familiar with BBC4 documentaries, then you may have seen the channel's recent history of children's television, in which one modern-day four-year-old excitedly explained that 'the old Doctor turns into the new Doctor!'… and said it with exactly the same conviction as a Christian claiming that 'on the third day, he rose again'. Well, naturally. Both events seem equally irrational, but both have the same aesthetic logic. They appeal to the same human impulse. The Inner Self. The immortality nerve.

Obviously I haven't mentioned "Utopia" here, because I'm writing this before it's actually been broadcast. But it's by Russell T. Davies and it's got Derek Jacobi in it, so it's bound to be good. And nobody cares about my "good" reviews, only my supposedly "insulting" ones. For instance, the above article is probably the most lucid thing I've ever said about Doctor Who, yet it's guaranteed to get less attention than calling Chris Chibnall a big spaz.


- I'd just like to point out that to this day, I still haven't seen a single episode of Transformers. But I remember watching the adverts at the age of thirteen, and being puzzled that even though both sides in the Transformer dispute had the same ability to flip between war machine and everyday object, the evil Transformers were called "Decepticons" (to suggest that they were doing something terribly treacherous by pretending to be Walkmans) while their opponents were "heroic Autobots". Clearly, some consumer goods have a greater degree of moral rectitude than others.

- Having now consulted the internet, I've learned that Fred Dibnah's speciality was his ability to demolish gigantic chimneys without using explosives. We apologise for any distress this inaccuracy may have caused.