Sunday, July 27, 2008

Silent But Deadly: Rhetorical Flatulence in "The Aliens of London"

Gavin wrote:

This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”

As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.

Steve Bell's If... is a satirical cartoon strip which has appeared every day in the liberal Guardian newspaper since the 1980s. Its stock in trade is scabrously exaggerated caricatures of public figures: George Bush is a barely articulate chimp; Tony Blair is a swivel eyed lunatic. John Major, famously, was a hopeless superhero who wore Y-fronts over his grey suit.

The figures in this kind of cartoon strip are not characters, but iconographic representations of an argument. If you see a sketch of Tony Blair with a dog-collar and halo, you understand it to mean "In the opinion of this paper, the Prime Minister is trying to gain spurious moral authority from what we consider to be a rather affected religiosity" and not "Our artist happened to see the Prime Minister in an inappropriate shirt and standing in front of a bright light, and turned in a sketch" One of Bell's single-frame editorial cartoons depicted a snow-flake with Iain Duncan-Smith's face, flanked by bowler-hatted demons with tails and pitchforks. This said pretty much all that needed to be said. You would no more look at Bell cartoon and say "But surely, George Bush is a human being, not a monkey?" than you would look at the photo on the front page and say "But surely, George Bush isn't really three inches tall and monochrome?" The cartoonist is not creating another world, but looking at this one through a distorting lens.

Throughout Blair's premiership, Private Eye ran a text feature called "St Albion's News", in which a young and enthusiastic clergyman named Rev. Tony reported on the weekly goings on in his parish. (He was last seen heading off to the Holy Land to start an ecumenical mission called "Drawing All Faiths Together"[D.A.F.T]). For this kind of thing to be funny you do, I think, have to imagine that Rev. Tony Blair is a person with separate existence from Prime Minister Tony Blair. The joke works best when Rev. Tony does something which makes perfect sense for a Church of England vicar, but which ironically parallels something which has happened to the P.M that week. (An argument with parish treasurer Gordon about what to do with the collection money, say.) Of course Rev. Tony can't ever notice that his parish council have the same names as members of the Cabinet. Of course the P.M can't visit his parish. That's not how the joke works. St Albion's may look a little like a real place, but it's really just England looked at through a slightly different kind of distorting lens.

This sort of satirical roman a clef works a lot like classical allegory. It is obvious that Gloriana is Elizabeth I and Timias is Sir Walter Raleigh, at least, it is if you've read the footnotes. But it wouldn't occur to you to ask "Does Timias know he's Raliegh? What if Raliegh met Timias?" Timias isn't actually a person any more than the world of the Fairy Queen is actually a place. He's just a witty portrait of Raliegh -- made of words.

Yes Minister was also a satire on British politics, but its rules are quite different. It certainly depends on comic exaggeration: civil servants aren't really as Machiavellian as Sir Humphrey and politicians aren't really as spineless as Jim Hacker. But the programme is only funny if, while we are watching, we believe that they are. We have to pretend that what we are watching is what really does go on behind the scenes at Westminster. The show goes to some lengths to maintain this rhetorical verisimilitude. At one point, Sir Humphrey points out that civil servants can't have opinions of their own, and that, in his career, he himself has been both a supporter and an opponent of capital punishment, and a supporter and opponent of the Common Market. That places him very precisely in a specific historical time frame. But Hacker pointedly only ever refers to "The Party", "The PM" or "The Opposition": we never discover whether he's meant to be Labour or Tory. He runs such an insignificant ministry that we can mentally "slot him in" to which ever government happens to be in power when we happen to be watching. We could say that the early episodes take place on a parallel would indistinguishable from our own but for the existence of a Minister for Administrative Affairs and that the later episodes take place on one indistinguishable from our own except that James Hacker, rather than John Major, succeed Mrs. T. But only fans talk like that. Everyone else instantly recognizes it as "fiction".

Ian Hislop's short-lived children's show My Dad's The Prime Minister adopted a quite different strategy. Clearly, Michael Phillips isn't Tony Blair: his children are different ages to Leo and Euan and the little Blairs went to poncey private jesuitical establishments, where the whole joke is that Dillon has been sent to a bog standard state comp. But equally clearly, Phillips isn't any Prime Minister apart from Blair: he's obsessed with image, has a sinister spin doctor, is widely regarded as a bit phony, tries to look cool and comes across as "naff", etc. David Lodge's campus novels are set in "Rummage" – a fictional town that occupies the same place that Birmingham does in the real world. One could say the same about this version of the P.M. Again, the general public wouldn't give this kind of thing a moment's thought. It's just how stories work.

The genre which attaches most importance to "reality" is soap-opera. The whole point is that we're watching the ordinary lives of ordinary people: so if we don't "believe" in it, there's no point. Eastenders takes place in real time, in the real London, but in a fictitious Square in a fictitious borough. We can believe this very easily: unless you happen to be a cabbie, there are thousands of London streets you've never heard of. The programme would, I imagine, work differently if it were said to be taking place in an entirely fictitious city in a slightly different version of modern Britain. The fact that there is no such country as Borchester allows Ambridge to continue to be the kind of village that doesn't quite exist in the 20th Century. English teachers will tell you that Christminster "is" Oxford and The Mayor of Casterbridge could just as well have been called "The Mayor of Dorchester." They are wrong.

It may not bother us very much that Walford East can't actually been found on the London Tube map, but it would bother us a great deal if the regulars at the Queen Vic sat down to watch Eastenders at 7.30 on Friday night. What do they watch? Come to that, which soap-stars do the gossip-columnists go on and on about? Presumably, in the Endersverse, the BBC didn't launch a successful twice-weekly soap in 1985. In which case they didn't need to divert cash from other projects to the new show. Ergo, Season 23 was not postponed, Trial of a Time Lord never happened, Colin Baker was never sacked, Doctor Who was never canceled and someone other than David Tennant is very probably the 17th Doctor in Season 45. And everybody in Ambridge listens to Dick Barton: Special Agent after their tea.

Fiction can't ever perfectly model reality; and all fiction follows its own rules. "Naturalistic" fiction is just as "artificial" as dramas in which people express their emotions by singing or communicate in rhyming couplets. But all fiction signifies to you, very clearly, what rules it wants to play by: what kind of reality it's meant to have. Are we to "pretend" that we are watching real people, or are we to keep it very firmly at the forefront of our minds that these are only actors playing a role? When someone dies, are we supposed to feel sad, or are we supposed to imagine that they will pop up again in the next scene​? Misunderstand the signals, and you end up looking very silly indeed. There was an episode of Spitting Image in which the very masculine Mrs. Thatcher goes to a men's hair-dresser to have her hair cut. "I want you to do something which will be universally popular" she tell the barber....who proceeds to take out his razor and slit her throat. Only the most autistically humourless Daily Telegraph reader could possibly have taken this as an endorsement of or incitement to political assassination. Every one else "gets" that it's funny precisely because it's not real.

Now: when Doctor Who was re-introduced to us in 2005, it was made, very, very clear that we were being asked to treat it as having an Eastenders kind of reality. Maybe no such place as The Powell Estate actually existed, but we were to approach it as if it did. Mickey and Rose were real young people who did or failed to do the washing up, ate hamburgers, watched football, bunked off school and conceivably had sexual intercourse or at any rate thought about it. When trying to gain the confidence of Blonwyn in Victorian Cardiff, Rose even said "bum", the rudest word that most of us had heard uttered since William Hartnell said "bottom" in 1964, obviously softening us up for the moment when the Doctor would say "fart" and the Slitheen would say "bollocks", very nearly.

This isn't the only way it could have been done. It could have been a conscious pastiche of 1970s Doctor Who. It could have been a parody. It could have set up ironic contrasts between styles and attitudes of the 70s and the styles and attitudes of the present day, like the Brady Bunch movie. It could have been a dirty post-modern gay sit-com like the dreadful Torchwood. It could very well have been set in generic sci-fi time in which ordinary people never quite came on stage so we don't find out whether they were the kinds of people who say "bum" or not. But the decision was made – real world, real people, real phones, real internet, real sexuality, real pizzas, real mothers.

The first installment of "Aliens of London" presses this strategy extremely hard. Up to this point, Doctor Who assistants had wandered into the TARDIS, traveled around the universe for a few seasons, been dropped off on alien generation ships or at the siege of Troy and never mentioned again. The opening of "Aliens of London" asks us to take Doctor Who literally: to ask what it's been like for the people that Rose left behind. Mummy Rose has been putting out pre-Madeleine posters to try to track down her missing daughter; Mickey has had "stuff" put through his letter box because people think he might have killed her; the policeman assumes there must be something sexy about the Doctor and Rose's relationship, and some brat vandalizes the TARDIS. This is carried on, mostly, through the beginning of the invasion: people's reaction is part panic, part carnival, and we see plausibly over-wrought TV reports of the events.

However, when Andrew Marr starts talking about and MP with special responsibility for sugar quality in imported confectionery and Harriet Bloody Jones continues to obsess about her cottage hospital, we start to get sinking feelings. Rose and Jackie and Mickey and the Doctor are apparently real people, but the characters inside Downing Street seem to be turning into cartoons. I think that it is funny to think of a back-bencher worrying about local hospitals in the face of an alien invasion on condition that we don't believe she is a real person. If we tried to take her seriously as a person, we'd ask if she was suffering from some kind of mental disorder. It also strikes us as odd that Blue Peter should be making cakes in the shape of alien spaceships: this is a good joke, but about as believable as them making cakes in the shape of jumbo jets on September 13th. I think that this is all quite intentional. I think that Davies is consciously looking out from behind the screen and saying "It's all right kids; we're just play acting; it's only pretend."

Then the aliens start farting, and making jokes about farting, and talking about farting using 1970s playground slang; and removing their human disguises using what appear to be zip fasteners. And then we are listening to slightly caricatured American newscasters telling us that there has to be a special U.N resolution to allow Britain to use nuclear weapons and that the farting green babies have "massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed in 45 seconds." And we think: this is a cartoon strip; this is a portrait of the world through a distorted lens; this is a custard pie routine taking place on a vaudeville stage, quite a funny custard pie routine, possibly, but not something that you actually believe is happening. So we expect Relatively Realistic Girl Who Bunks Off School And Says Bum and Relatively Realistic Boy Who Likes Football And Never Does The Washing Up to say "Hang on. We seem to be in some kind of scatological version of the Muppet Show, written by a sixth former who wants to make very obvious points about the Iraq war. Has someone put something in the water? Have we been knocked down by David Bowie's car and gone into a coma like that guy whose going to become the Master in the series after next?"

I mean, it was crap when Donna and the Doctor found themselves participating in an Agatha Christie mystery at which Agatha Christie was physically present, but at least they had the decency to say "Gosh, isn't it crap that we are appearing in an Agatha Christie story at which Agatha Christie is present: all the fault of the giant shape shifting telepathic wasp, I'll be bound." When Jackie was attacked by a Christmas tree she has the decency to say "Gosh, how ironic, I'm being attacked by a Christmas tree" which isn't great, but at least someone was trying.

But Rosey and Jim actually appear not to notice that the farting green babies have deliberately orchestrated their invasion in such a way as to make an ironic point about the Iraq War. My best guess is that, in the same way Donna didn't know about the Cybermen invasion because she was on holiday, so Rose missed the invasion of Iraq because she was dying her hair that night. After all, the population of Cardiff don't know that the earth was invaded by aliens, and the people in London don't notice that a malfunctioning nuclear power station is being built in the middle of Cardiff, so why should an ordinary person know about a war?

To me, this feels as if I've been watching an episode of...I don't know... 24 in which Steve Bell's monkey version of George Bush is having high level discussions with David Palmer. I'm not saying that something like that couldn't conceivably be done in a cleverly surreal post-modern way, like when Buffy turned into a musical for one week. I suppose we'd all be waiting for the revelation that Bauer was having a trauma-induced dream sequence or was hallucinating. But if it turned out that the writers thought that a cartoon chimpanzee fitted in perfectly well with 24 – which isn't realistic, but has exactly the right degree of realism for a thriller, at least during Season 1, or at any rate the first few episodes of Season 1 – then you'd probably stop watching. Particularly if the director said: "Oh, what does it matter if one character is realistic and the other is a cartoon monkey. It makes for a fun scene. No-one expects this kind of thing to make sense, and the ratings are good. Go away, you mosquito, or I shall swat you from my superior vantage point."

The presence of Rose, Jackie and Mickey doesn't prevent the Slitheen satire from being funny. What stops the Slitheen satire from being funny is that it isn't. But the presence of the Slitheen satire makes it impossible for us to continue to take Rose seriously as a real-world character. It fatally undermines the rhetorical strategies that had been set up over the previous three episodes, and opens up a crack in the programme's foundation which will bring the whole thing crashing down in Season 4. Rose doesn't spoil the Slitheen, but the Slitheen spoil Rose.

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