Tuesday, 12 April 2005

Doctor Who, Season X-1: "The Unquiet Dead"

This world terrifies me.

I have to make this personal, because that's the only way of getting through it. It's hard to believe, now, that there was a time when I felt optimistic; a time when a lot of us felt optimistic. Ten years ago, everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Britain seemed to be heading for one of those chip-shop Renaissances I was talking about in the last inter-rant; the counter-culture was on the way up; the neo-Nazi subculture, which did so well in the early '90s, was on the way down; the venal, disease-riddled government was on the way out; the internet was shiny and new, and made us temporarily believe that the coming era of freedom-of-information would lead to great things as well as free porn and places for physics students to hang out. People were more aware, more alert, more tolerant and more culture-literate than at any time in our prior history. Even post-modernism looked interesting instead of obvious. We thought we were finally in for something good.

Didn't quite happen that way, did it?

I know it's not just me, although it may just be people of my age; God knows how those born after the mid-'80s must see things. But this world makes me… uncomfortable. This world where things that would have seemed appalling and unthinkable ten years ago are now taken for granted, and every passing year seems to make us more grotesque, more self-involved, more ignorant. The worst of it, perhaps, is that for us - us, ourselves, here in the middle of the more successful parts of the modern world - everything seems so very, very clean. We all have disposable incomes now. We can all choose how we want to poison and malnourish and emotionally-stunt ourselves. Virtually everyone who owns a home can afford a mobile 'phone, ironically. We're safe, safer than we've ever been before.

We're also meaner, pettier, more bigoted, more complacent, more self-absorbed and more amoral. But we're safe. All around us, the sense of evil in the world is sharper and darker than at any point in living memory, yet we don't have to think about that. Even to have a strong opinion is seen as in some way unsafe. Certainly unfashionable. Certainly unwanted.

It terrifies me. I'm naturally a terrified person. In this past week I've been called - not for the first time - an "enfant terrible", but I'm thirty-three years old and I'm scared to turn on the television. Not very enfant, not very terrible. (I suspect that "enfant terrible", in this sense, just means "has a big mouth".) If you want to know how I see the world, then… sod it, there's no other way of getting this across… imagine one of those SF dramas where the monsters have set up a psychic illusion that makes everybody see a paradise, and all the people walk around grinning their stupid faces off, but one character isn't affected and perceives everything as being rotting flesh and disembodied brains. That's the world: unremitting horror, disguised. The Earth is vicious and untrustworthy, under a thin veneer of computer graphics and cheap DVDs. So yes. I'm scared, and I'm paranoid, and I don't feel as if there's anybody I can talk to about it any more.

This brings us to the night of Saturday, the 9th of April, 2005. The night that Doctor Who became as terrible and as terrifying as everything else in the world, though not for the traditional rear-of-furniture reasons (at least the walking corpse makes a proper screaming sound this time). This is bad in the bad way.

I can't explain, in any meaningful sense, exactly what happened to me on the night of "The Unquiet Dead" (or "The Talons of Kilroy-Silk", as I now tend to think of it). I think it's the principle of "the figurehead means more than the crew"; you can hear about millions dying of plague or famine, and you only accept it as a Bad Thing in a statistical sense, but when you hear about American soldiers shooting dead a rare tiger in Baghdad Zoo then it comes a damn sight closer to making you cry. However appalling the world now seems, the sheer sense of betrayal in watching it happen to something you grew up with -

No. I'll come to that.

Since I posted the first review of "The Unquiet Dead", it's been suggested that it was written with some kind of personal agenda in mind. It's been implied that this was a wilful, finely-honed attack, probably with an ulterior motive. (Why do people always assume I've got ulterior motives? I never have ulterior motives, that's my whole problem: if I were capable of guile then I'd be the one writing television programmes by now, or more probably, living in a villa in the south of France and running an international empire of whores.) I may have forgotten that on the internet, things work in terms of cliques, counter-cliques, e-diplomacy and rabble-rousing; I may have forgotten that sheer rage, other than THE THING WHICH I BELIEVE IS CALLED "SHOUTING" BY USERS OF NEWSGROUPS, doesn't necessarily carry well. There's no smiley for "hurting".

Nonetheless. This is what I wrote on Saturday (and it's the edited version, without the swearwords):

* * * * *

I'm going to try to keep this brief. My review / all-purpose-meditation-on "Rose" was apparently so long and involved that the editor of Doctor Who Monthly mocked me for writing anything so complicated. Straight to the big issues this time, then.

When I was talking about "Rose", I made the point that the most important factor in "old" Doctor Who was its acceptance of the alien, though not in the prosthetic-make-up sense of the word. Its love of the outside world was the best thing it ever had to offer. So: given that we live in a society which has been forced into a permanent state of xenophobia, given that we live in a culture whose view of morality is largely based on the question of whether the people we meet are evil darkies trying to take our land and our women and our jobs… how well do you think I'm going to react to a story which explicitly, deliberately equates aliens with foreigners, and then says "all aliens are evil, they may look nice but they're out to swarm your country in their billions"?

I'm sorry. There's no other way of saying it. This is offensive, poisonous, xenophobic ****. I know many of you will be saying "a-hah, but there have always been alien invasion stories in Doctor Who, what's the difference?", so I'll tell you the difference. There was never a time in the history of original Doctor Who, not even in the days when polite middle-England was terrified by the thought of being overrun by funny-coloured people, when the programme pandered to that kind of vermin-thinking by claiming that all foreigners were invaders (see, especially, "The Ambassadors of Death"… Enoch Powell isn't welcome in the Doctor's universe). "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" came from the war-time generation's fear of Nazism, not from a terror of immigration. "Spearhead from Space", like much of '70s Doctor Who, shows the invader to be a ruthless, self-involved force modelled on the inhuman instincts of our own culture rather than on swarthy-looking foreign types. "The Unquiet Dead" is different. "The Unquiet Dead" is a story, made at a point in time when the big electoral issue is whether the British should put up with foreigners at all or treat them like scrounging gypsies, about a bunch of REFUGEES - about a bunch of ASYLUM-SEEKERS - who ask the Doctor for his help and then turn out to be EVIL ALIENS WHO JUST WANT TO SWARM YOUR COUNTRY NYHAH HAH HAAAAAH WE WILL RAPE YOUR WOMEN AND DEFILE YOUR CORPSES.

The Doctor's argument against Rose, when Rose believes that it's wrong to let the aliens take over human bodies because it's just a bit sick, is one of the best arguments the Doctor has ever had to present. The level of tolerance in what he says is - or seems - remarkable. When he tells her that she's got to stop thinking as if her customs are automatically the right and proper ones, it's one of the most admirable moments in modern television. And then it turns out that Rose was right all along, because the aliens are really body-snatching wogs who deserve to be blown up.

I don't seriously believe that Mark Gatiss will read this. But on the off-chance that he might stumble into this while ego-surfing, I'm going to say it. Mark: you're a [note that I've edited the end of this sentence slightly since I first wrote it, now I've had time to calm down, so I'll settle for] thoughtless halfwit. Did you really think it was all right to write a script for this programme, a programme which is supposedly watched by the New Generation and deliberately calculated to mean something, that sends out a vile, appalling, dangerous message like this? Did you think it didn't matter? Did you think it would never have an impact? At best, this is Doctor Who: The Michael Howard Years, a new version of the programme for the kind of NF-loving scum who take the "shoot all the ****ers" view of anyone who wants to come anywhere near the great and pearly-white shores of Britain. This is a programme that teaches children never to trust people who look a bit weird, especially not if they're asking for sanctuary from a war that nearly wiped them out, because they're obviously criminals playing on our bleeding-heart compassion and will always stab us in the back. This, circa 2005, can only be read as a party political broadcast for the British National Party.

After two weeks of being really, really good, Doctor Who has become something sickening, twisted and wrong. I can't express how vile and awful this is, so I'll shut up soon. All I know is that I wish the series had never come back, rather than come back like this.

Doctor Who these days isn't an ironic, post-modern SF show that only fantasy-literate people watch. It's one of the highest-rated programmes on British TV, the programme you want your children to see, the programme that those children learn from without even knowing it. The programme which has, traditionally, had a morality sharper than anyone else's. And a script like this, in 2005, is as disgusting and as irresponsible as a programme about big-eared money-grubbing aliens with Yiddish accents would have been in the 1930s. No, a better comparison: imagine an American TV show made in the late '60s, which claimed that dark-skinned aliens weren't quite smart enough to run their own society and thus shouldn't be allowed a vote. That's the kind of programme we've been given tonight. Many of you may disagree, because people of Our Sort tend to get distracted by big Cosmic Wars and such rather than looking at the message coming through underneath, but imagine you were watching this as a ten-year-old. What would you have learned today?

I feel sick. And betrayed. And God help me, if I weren't already "committed" to this series then this would be the point at which I'd give up.

* * * * *

So this is what happens next:

I post the review on the internet within an hour of the programme finishing. Within another hour, I've been told that I might want to re-consider the "threats against Mark Gatiss" before letting it be known that it's there. Within an hour of that, I'm starting to pick up feedback, and the anger is being replaced by paranoia; the lurching, sick-making sense that the world is getting smaller again, or that it's only me who can feel what's happening, or that I can't tell the difference between friends and enemies, or that I'm fighting something I can't see, or that I'm fighting something that doesn't even exist. I start to swing between indignance ("no, this man has written the most divisive thing on television since the days of Love Thy Neighbour and I will stand firm") and fear ("I have no idea how the internet really works, I have no idea how much I'm supposed to have said out loud, I believe everything I said but I don't have the strength to stand by it"). I get drunk. I take the review off-line. I go to bed with half of my personality telling me that I'm a sodding coward and that this was one of the few times in my life when I've really meant something and it really had to be said. The other half is hoping that hardly anybody saw it before I got rid of it.

The next day I put it back on-line, albeit with the swearing taken out. I try to watch the repeat of "The Unquiet Dead" on BBC3, but it… hurts. I can't go through with this.

I didn't realise it until after I'd written the diatribe, but I think I know why I reacted so badly: this is, without exception, the first time that Doctor Who has ever been "the enemy". There are certain things in the old series which seem briefly objectionable, as you'd expect in something that ran for over two decades - the odd hint of non-ironic British imperialism, the occasional touch of misogyny, the vague hint that the death penalty is some kind of natural justice, the self-indulgence of "The Sun Makers" - but this is the first time that an entire storyline has been positively opposed to anything I'd recognise as "good". The first time, at least on television, that Doctor Who has been vicious, brutal and nasty. And, as far as I can gather, those responsible just think it's funny.

I realise that I had to say what I said. Because… because why? Because "evil must be fought"? Maybe not. Because I know that even though I'm strictly minor-league, I'm at least vaguely noticeable. And because what I've seen can't be allowed to stand unchallenged; because the debate about "The Unquiet Dead" being unacceptable television has to start straight after its broadcast. This isn't a small point, this isn't a tele-historical footnote that can be glossed over easily. When they write the definitive textbook on twenty-first century Doctor Who - the kind of textbook that would, in the old days, have said things like "the first episode was broadcast the day after the Kennedy assassination" - then let them write this: for the next two days after "The Unquiet Dead" was transmitted, the top story on the news was the immigration issue, with the Daily Mail ("the paper that won't turn you black") running a front-page headline about a secret government conspiracy to allow illegal immigrants to "disappear" into British society unnoticed. As I write this it's three days on, and the top story is a warning from the Commission for Racial Equality that the political parties' electioneering is going to cause problems, following reports that there's been a recent, dramatic rise in racial violence. We have to remember this, if nothing else. The "evil asylum-seekers" thing isn't a side-issue. In Britain, April 2005, it's the only issue there is.

Back to Sunday evening. By now I've convinced myself that I was right, that I had to do what I did. Then I pick up my e-mails. My in-box is flooded. The fear takes over, again; I realise that however right or wrong I was, in the hours since it's become an argument between invisible people in invisible rooms, and I have no way of knowing what the consequences will be. Some of the e-mails look angry. Some of them look as if they're carrying letter-bombs, as if the outside world is replying in kind. I realise, once again, that I'm not strong enough for this fight. I'm a **** moralist. I know what's wrong, but I'm too terrified to click "open".

I delete all my e-mails without reading them. The next day I go out, partly to prove that I'm not literally under siege, and look at the headlines. They seem to back me up, but it doesn't do much for my moral compass. When I get home I've had three 'phone calls from someone wanting to talk about "the review". I consider calling him back and explaining that no, I can't talk about it, because the fuss about the review has become the threshold of the hostile, incomprehensible world I'm currently having so much trouble with. But I don't. I can't. Instead I take the 'phone off the hook, and plan on leaving it that way for the rest of the week.

The "fuss", as far as I can pick it up from the people I do speak to, seems to be based not on what I think of the episode but on what I've said about Mark Gatiss. This puzzles me, for a while. Since the review was written in a red haze (and then trimmed while drunk), I don't remember the exact wording, so I go back and look. It still puzzles me. I've asked the theoretical web-surfing Gatiss what the hell he thinks he's doing, whether he thinks he can write this kind of thing without anyone objecting. It takes me a while to realise the problem. I've been writing on the internet in the same way I'd normally talk to people, and that includes people who've pissed me off. I'd have no problem saying any of this to Gatiss' face, because it's true and he needs to be told. As a writer, albeit of less importance, I'd expect the same treatment; if an author screws up then he's culpable. Culture isn't a game of knock-down-ginger. You can't tell a story with a dangerous moral in front of ten-million people and then run away. There's a "heat / kitchen" relationship to be considered here.

Two ironies strike me. One: I wouldn't have any hesitation about telling Gatiss this to his face, but I'm afraid to read e-mails from other people talking about it. (Because he's another writer, and thus a "non-civilian"? I'm not sure.) Two: if I wouldn't give him the chance to run away after writing something reckless, then how can I feel justified in running away from people who want to talk to me about what I wrote?

I open the next few e-mails that I get. Fortunately, they're mostly from people agreeing with me. One old acquaintance tells me his reaction to the episode. Knowing that I occasionally mix with Doctor Who writers and TV people, he wants to know if he can be introduced to Mark Gatiss, so that he can shake Gatiss' hand, congratulate the writer for "telling it like it is" in a fake BNP-thug-voice, and then ask 'when are you going to have a go at those bloody gays as well?'. This makes me laugh.

Then I get an e-mail from my publisher. He tells me to shut up, because I'm damaging future sales of About Time. He also tells me that one of the American error-checkers has removed himself from the project and asked for his name to be taken off the credits, because he doesn't want to be associated with someone capable of making slanderous aspersions. The "indignant" half of me wants to point out that it isn't sure it wants to be associated with Doctor Who at all any more, especially when it glances at the TV and sees Michael Howard telling the world that Tony Blair has been letting evil gypsy terrorists into the country on the sly. The "scared" half, on the other hand, wonders how many more people it can hurt.

This is the point at which half of me starts crying, largely the outside. This has been happening a lot recently, though it's been a while since it was caused by anything quite so selfish (although you could, perhaps, argue that crying at dead baby animals on wildlife programmes is a particularly childish form of selfishness). It immediately strikes me as ridiculous that a sodding episode of Doctor Who should be the thing which causes this. I mean, for God's sake. I know people talk about it changing their lives, but this is merely pathetic.

I should point out at this stage, before my behaviour becomes any more puzzling, that I've recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Yes, I know. I bet people who used to call me "Mad Larry" at the Tavern are really feeling stupid now. It's not what they refer to as "acute", however, and the most important thing they tell you about it is that it doesn't really mean you've got a split personality. But oddly, that's how I suddenly feel. I start thinking about Lord Byron: a relentlessly driven humanist, who spent much of his life shamelessly throwing himself into a variety of moral causes, who also happened to be an unbearable arse and abused virtually everyone he was ever close to. I begin to realise that I'm really just a crap Lord Byron. One half is an outspoken idealist, but the other half just a frightened, neurotic virgin. If the half that wrote the review were in control all the time, then I'd be running the world by now and bollocks to what anybody else thought.

I wish I didn't have a conscience. I wish I didn't care about anyone, or at least I wish I only cared about people in theory, so I could get on with the job of being a zealot without having to think about the looks in other people's eyes when they get caught in the crossfire. I wish I could be ambitious without having to be honest, I wish I could lie to women to get them into bed, I wish I could find the speeches of George W. Bush funny and absurd instead of horrifying and disturbing. I wish I wasn't trapped in this awkward, ridiculous, not-one-thing-nor-another body, where I'm forced to alienate people because I'm not strong enough to stop liking them. And I wish I could stop pretending that every statement I make is part of a carefully-thought-out "enfant terrible" persona instead of just pure, unstoppable belief.

The e-mail from my publisher includes the words "even if you retracted…", and I wonder if this is a thinly-veiled suggestion. But I can't back down from this. I can't. Either I regret nothing, or I have to regret even caring. Well… maybe I can regret one detail. Maybe I should have included a "it doesn't even look deliberate" clause. Even those who've agreed with me have said something along the lines of "mind you, I don't think Gatiss is actually a racist…", as if it needed to be said. I'm fairly sure he isn't; I'm fairly sure it was just careless, sloppy thinking, his usual habit of making everything in the universe as unpleasant as possible, but this time missing the fairly bleeding obvious subtext of what he was writing. He was thoughtless. People who write for massively-rated television programmes can't afford to be thoughtless. The episode can only be read, right here and right now, as party-politically nasty. Writers have a duty to get this kind of thing right. No excuses.

A question still remains in my head at this point, though: why didn't Russell T. Davies, as the chief writer and executive producer (and, obviously, as the one who gave Gatiss the brief of a story set in the nineteenth century with Charles Dickens in it), notice the problem? Night falls on Monday, and BBC4 shows its documentary about Davies, during which the answer begins to reveal itself. You may have seen, if you bothered reading the "Rose" review to the end, my suggestion that Doctor Who is about the outside universe while most other SF is about looking at alien-ish things from a position of comfort. Davies has his own, subtly different, take on this. His view is that whereas most SF sees the universe as being "safe", with well-defined bad guys menacing nice people in uniforms, Doctor Who sees the universe as a place steeped in death where every authority is untrustworthy, every official is likely to be corrupt and anyone nice you might meet is liable to snuff it (q.v. "The End of the World", and come to think of it the heroically expendable working-class person in "The Unquiet Dead"). In terms of drama, this works as a dynamic. It guarantees that a certain amount of fear and anxiety will always be there, which is probably what the programme needs and at least saves us from a repeat of "Time and the Rani". But it also means that Davies has no problem with the idea of all outsiders being potentially evil, because he sees everyone as being potentially evil. This may blind him to, shall we say, other concerns. And Gatiss… Gatiss, whose work has always been obsessed with horror, whose method of establishing a character as evil in St Anthony's Fire was to have him stab a kitten through the throat, was never going to hold back in this kind of environment. Never mind how it looks from the outside.

Yes. I should have put "I know he's not a Nazi, but" somewhere in the review. But then, as far as I'm concerned, an irresponsible writer is a bad enough thing to be; saying "he just didn't think what he was doing" doesn't make him look much better. The result, however, is a number of people asking if I've got some kind of past history with the man and if I'm just looking for an excuse for a fight. (I've never met him. I liked The League of Gentlemen, Nightshade was okay, I didn't go for Last of the Gadarene. BBC4's Quatermass Experiment was awful, but it wasn't his fault. I'm ambivolent, on the whole. I think of 1991, when the Happy Mondays - the country's big "alternative" band, back then - started making twatty anti-gay comments in the press, and people started sending in smashed-up copies of their albums to the NME in protest… I briefly toy with the idea of posting shattered pieces of my limited-edition Royston Vasey snow-globe to the BBC, but I doubt anyone would get the message.) My publisher points out that I sound as if I'm "calling out" the writer. Well, of course I am. Isn't that what writers are supposed to do? William S. Burroughs and his mates were at each others' throats all the time, haranguing each other about their duties to the written word. This is how it's meant to work, I'm sure.

The angry half begins to rise again. It insists that this isn't right. Somebody has done a bad thing, has done a bad thing to the TV-psyche of the nation and done a bad thing to Doctor Who in particular, and I have a right to say so. Yet people are objecting because I've insulted the writer as well as the script? No. No no no. You can't deny your responsibilities, you can't spread dirt and then claim to be sacrosanct. Heat / kitchen. This man has made ten-million people listen, and then delivered a hateful message, just like at school when they told you in assembly that you shouldn't complain when things aren't fair because "life isn't fair". Why am I letting myself feel as if I'm the one who's just written The Satanic Verses? Culture isn't an abstract exercise, it's a battelfield. You hurt people, you get hurt. If he wanted pity then he shouldn't have written a script about pity being a weakness.

I try not to think of the end of "Genesis of the Daleks".

The "anger" arguments seem compelling. It doesn't matter. My "scared virgin" side still wants to scream and get drunk again. By this time, the programme about Russell T. Davies has moved on. We see him working in his study, and I notice that he's got a complete set of New Adventures on the shelf behind him. This means that he's got at least one book by me, in the room while Doctor Who is being written. The thought makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. There's an odd sensation of guilt, but at the same time, a sense that the outside world is telling me "we know where you live".

Later in the evening, there's a documentary about the industrial revolution. A historian states that the printing-press only became popular in the tranquil and contented Muslim world three-hundred years after it took Christian Europe by storm. He says that nobody knows exactly why, but makes a few suggestions, like the lack of metal-workers in the Islamic states and the nature of the religious lifestyle. I remember how many political pamphlets started circulating in the days of the early presses, and wonder if the contentment of the Muslims had been the whole problem; if the westerners immediately saw the appeal of the press simply because so many of them were the kind of hotheads who liked making pamphlets. I spend a few minutes telling myself that the history of writing is a history of people with big mouths. I have a Naked Lunch moment in which I see myself for what I really am, a half-man in a room full of Doctor Who tapes who wants to pretend - just for a few seconds - to be Martin Luther. Then I go to bed, and try to sleep.

There's more abuse in my in-box the next morning. From another writer, this time, telling me that I've broken some kind of covenant or other. It's happened before. It stills hurts. I know it won't stop me doing the same thing again, and not knowing whether I'm making a mistake or maintaining a principle.

This world terrifies me. But all of us are safe, and all of us are protected, so when we're scared we can only be scared of the things that are closest to hand. We're meaner, pettier, more bigoted, more complacent, more self-absorbed and more amoral than ever before. I'm reminded of H. G. Wells, who - depressed after World War Two - wrote a book in which he claimed that his depression proved the entire universe to be coming apart at the seams. More and more of us are that self-obsessed, now, that well-prepared to write our own neuroses over the face of the world. I know I am, God help me. And in my world, even Doctor Who is the enemy this week.

You know, it's only just occurred to me. I've described the real world in exactly the same way that Russell T. Davies describes the Doctor Who one. And I object to what's been done to the Doctor Who one because it's just like the real one.

How awkward