Sunday, September 19, 2021

When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus

"Spokesperson for a generation of disappointed brit Cerebus fans..."
                  Dave Sim


80 page booklet 
20,000 word essay
plus extras
pretty layout



paperback book

Or (what would make me happiest...)

free PDF Download to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $1 tier

free hard copy to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $5 tier

Or just read the text on this blog...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"Together, they created Spider-Man..."

It took that Catholic Church four hundred years to admit that Galileo may have had a good point; it has only taken Marvel comics 50 to acknowledge that, er, comic books are a collaborative medium. 

(I don't know if there is a doctrine of infallibility which means that from now on, this is what they always thought...)

A Stupid Person's Idea of a Clever Person

Little extra something for my Patreons.... I thought the essay on Invisible Enemy was a bit on the short side, so here is some more of it.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (iv): The Invisible Enemy

The Doctor regards the mind/brain interface as a physical location: part of the architecture of his brain. He says that he is searching for the bridge between the left and the right lobes; but when he gets there, everything goes mystical. The connection between the two brain hemispheres is an invisible bridge across a dark chasm. He says that the chasm represents "the gap between logic and imagination"; that on one side (the logical side, presumably) is the brain, and on the other side, the mind. He says that the mind and the brain are "two things entirely different but part of the same thing". When they cross the bridge, they are in "the land of dreams and fantasy."

Nothing narratively follows from any of this this. A journey through one of the Doctor's dreams could have been quite interesting: but what we actually see is a projection of lots of Greek columns floating through space. The much foreshadowed interface is a corridor exactly like all the other corridors. The virus takes the form of a large bean-bag with a claw. The Doctor and the beanbag engage in the same kind of mutual taunting as the Doctor and the Rutan did last week.

My best guess is that we are dealing with the then-fashionable but now obsolete ideas of the left and right sides of the brain; where Left Brain is linear, fact-based and logical, and the Right brain is imaginative, intuitive and artistic. Brain turns out to mean Left Brain: mind simply means Right Brain. K-9, who uses big words, knows a lot but has no emotion circuits, is a purely Left Brain entity. Leela, who is all instinct and cannot read, is a Right Brain Person. The Virus attacks the Left Brain: K-9 can be infected even though he is not organic: Leela, because she is ruled by the Right side of the brain, is invulnerable. The Mind-Brain Interface is nothing more interesting than "the bridge between the two lobes". The swarm is a physical virus that jumps into the Left Side of the brain through the optic nerve and then moves to the Right side via the bridge. It was never really neotic at all.

"Don't be funny" says the Doctor to Leela.

The Doctor has just used "Hello!" as an exclamation, in the sense of "I am surprised" or "Take a look at this!" Leela replies "Hello" as if he had just greeted her. I don't know if we are supposed to think that Leela is unfamiliar with human idioms, and the Doctor unfairly assumes she is making a weak joke; or if she is actually making a weak joke.

But "Don't be funny" pretty much sums up the story. Everyone is trying, and no-one quite manages it.

When Leela says that the dark abyss between the left and right sides of the brains is "very deep", the Doctor pretends he thinks that she means that his explanation of the mind/body problem is very profound. When an actual electrical impulse zaps past them, he says that it is "just a passing thought". Leela says "I don't know what to think" and "I have no idea", which are, like, ironic things to say inside the Doctor's head. Like a Shakespearian clown, the Doctor seems to see everything as the opportunity for a wearisome pun. I wish I could say "This is because language is breaking down in the mind/body interface" or "The Signifier is kind of like the body, and the Signified is kind of like the soul." I like wordplay. Basil Brush was not above spending a whole season setting up a bad punchline. But merely twisting meanings for its own sake is not funny. 

I have said that Tom Baker's Doctor's arrogance is what made him so hugely attractive to naughty boys in nasty schools in the 1970s. I terribly fear that this just-passing-for-comedy crosstalk between the Doctor and Leela is what my 12 year old self would have thought was smart. Repeating yourself. Deliberately taking colloquial speech literally. Using unnecessarily big words. I don't know if we picked it up from Tom Baker, or if Tom Baker channelled his inner pre-adolescent. It's what Miss Griffiths would have called back-talking. He thinks he's the class comedian. "I know this brain like the back of my hand. What do you know about brains any way? I'll get excited if I want to it's my brain. Oh you want to know something about brains? I'll tell you anyway...." One feels he needs a slap. Miss Griffiths would have given him one.

It turns out that the Bean Bag wanted the Doctor to confront him in the mind body interface. The Doctor has fallen for his stratagem. If anyone were still paying attention this would feel like a terrible cop-out. A reverse deus ex machina. The good guy has spent two episodes doing what the bad guy wanted him to do; making the last fortnight seem like a bit of a waste of time.

They let us go. It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape.

Quite what the Bean Bag's stratagem was isn't entirely clear, but the Doctor totally fell for it. I suppose it thought "What I would really like is to be a giant Prawn in the macrocosmic world. But the only thing that can possibly make small things big is the dematerialisation circuit of a TARDIS. So here's the plan. I shall hang about in space for a billion years: a TARDIS is bound to come past eventually. When that happens, I shall mind control the occupant, because then he is absolutely certain to travel to the asteroid belt, clone himself, miniaturise himself, inject himself into his own blood stream, and confront me in the corridor where the left brain neotically meets the right brain. Then I will stall him for half an episode and at the exact moment he is about to dissolve, I will emerge through the tear duct, and they will think it is the Doctor and turn the embiggening ray on me, and I will turn into a Prawn and conquer the universe!"

It's not the daftest plan a supervillain has ever come up with but it does seem a little on the optimistic side.

The microscopic Leela and Doctor melt into air, thin air, leaving not a rack behind, unless you count the Doctor's scarf and Leela's loincloth and dagger. This is one of many dozens of things which makes no sense: if the Doctor and Leela are clones then surely all their clothing and possessions should survive the time limit? But if they are 3D photos then shouldn't their clothes and personal effects also turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight? The camera lingers on Leela's dagger, as if this is of special significance.

Once again, the plot wriggles. For three episode, we have been told that Leela is immune to the virus because she is stupid, instinctive, a hunter -- in short a right-brained person. But when her clone dissolves inside the Doctor, she somehow transfers her immunity to him. And by taking samples of the Doctor's tissue and doing Science on it, the Doctor and Marius can create an anti-spawn-vaccine. In about five minutes. Even AstraZeneka would be impressed.

The virus was never neotic. Leela's immunity never had anything to do with her savageness. The blokes leapt to the conclusion that she was immune because she was stupid, but actually she just happened to have some Virus Repellent Leela Spray in her blood.

Except -- except -- except...

In the final episode, the Intellect / Emotion duality is played out, very unsubtly, in the macrocosmic world. The Prawn is flying back to Titan in a spaceship, where he hopes to hatch an army of giant viruses in order to conquer all of time and space. The Doctor and Marius are trying to breed antibodies from the Doctor's blood. Leela asks why they don't just blow them up. Then she points out that the Doctor is meant to be a pacifist, but he is okay with using antibodies to wipe out a whole alien race. Then she asks why they don't just blow them up. They nip back to Titan in the TARDIS with a plan to introduce the antibodies into the virus breeding tanks. Leela still says they should blow them up. The Doctor confronts the Swarm and carelessly loses the phials of anti-bodies. Leela says it is possible to kill swarm-infected humans by knifing them in the neck. The Doctor doesn't think this is a very good idea. So instead, he blows them up.

The episode has set up a conflict between intellect represented by the Doctor, and action, represented by Leela. ("Do you think that is a good idea?" asks Leela, when the Doctor tells her to use her intelligence.) But in the end, the Doctor's intelligent approach fails, and nuking the site from orbit turns out to be the best solution. Leela's instinct does indeed win the day. There is quite a nice special effect of the base blowing up, but truly, wiring the door to the breeding colony to explode doesn't feel like a very satisfactory conclusion.

Some Doctor Who stories (the Web Planet?) have primitive, even ludicrous, special effects, but succeed because of their strength of their ideas, or their characterisation. And some Doctor Who (Remembrance of the Daleks?) make little sense, but carry us along with shiny monsters, arresting cliffhangers, and fun characters. The Invisible Enemy is in neither category. Some people have tried to defend it by saying that it is simply too ambitious: BBC special effects simply couldn't run to giant virii and journeys to the centre of the cerebellum. But better special effects would not have helped a story which doesn't seem to have been thought through; which doesn't seem to be interested in it's own world or it's own plot. For almost the first time, a Doctor Who story fails on every level: and Tom Baker is not enjoying himself enough, or being given interesting enough material, to save the day.

In the final seconds, K-9 becomes a companion. It is quite obvious to even the least critical viewer that there is no way he can get through the TARDIS door, but he does so anyway. The Doctor does not yet think of K-9 as a person, although Leela does. Marius makes a weak joke about K-9 shitting on the floor. Leela says "please can we keep him, please" like a schoolgirl with a puppy.

If you want to blame someone for the demise of Doctor Who, don't blame Mary Whitehouse, Michael Grade or Colin Baker: blame K-9. K-9 may have appealed greatly to eleven-year-old-me, but he embodied the fact that Doctor Who no longer wanted to be taken seriously. He turned the Doctor into a stooge in his own series. The pacifist Doctor who thought his way out of conflict was now accompanied by a ray gun wielding tank.

But thematically, K-9 had to be in this story. It's a story in which Left Brain Doctor wins the day by giving way to Right Brain Leela; in which the Doctor's brain turns out to be much less exciting than it should have been. So of course there is an artificial intelligence as well. K-9 is there to be the third point in the triangle. K-9 has no brain, but clearly thinks. Leela has a brain, but usually doesn't. The Doctor has a Mind full of fantasy and imagination; K-9 has no Right Brain at all.

Think I am reading too much into the story. Consider this. In the final seconds, K-9 shows that whatever the Doctor thinks, he/it is capable of acting under his/its own agency. He/it decide for himself/itself what he/it is going to do.

He has, says Marius, made up his own mind.


Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15:2 (iii): The Invisible Enemy

The idea of cloning the Doctor and injecting him into his own bloodstream is not, in itself, terrible. Of course, it is ripped off from Fantastic Voyage; but everything in Doctor Who is ripped off from something. You might think that the idea is a bit too whacky and oddball for Saturday night; you might on the other hand think that it was about time Doctor Who had a stab at the more fantastic, surreal end of science fiction.

But it doesn't work. It doesn't work on any level. As with the Prawn, we are left wondering if someone has deliberately decided to make it not work in order to prove some kind of a point.

It is introduced into the story in a painfully perfunctory way. No attempt is made to persuade us that it is plausible: if anything, the script seems to be saying "We know this is silly and we don't remotely expect you to believe in it."

How are we going to defeat the thought-like-virus that exists in the space between the physical and the spiritual?
By making a very small copy of the Doctor.

How are we going to make a copy of the Doctor?
Oh, Prof Marius just happens to have a fully functioning cloning machine lying around his lab.

Why are we going to make a copy of Leela as well?
Because the Doctor needs her tracking abilities. (The ability to hunt game and pursue enemies in a forest obviously translates into tracking a virus through the inside of someone's brain.)

How are we going to make them very small?
Oh, The Doctor just happens to have a fully functioning shrinking machine; or at any rate a part of the TARDIS that can be reconfigured as one.

How are we going to get the clones inside the Doctor's head?
Marius points a hypodermic needle vaguely at the floor of the cupboard which is serving as a shrinking chamber, scoops them up and injects them into the Doctor's neck. This is almost the most ridiculous thing in the whole ridiculous story: they are supposed to be so small that they can see individual nuerons firing, yet Marius simply picks them up off the floor. It's the 50th century and they still use needles: Dr McCoy was already using high-tech needle substitutes in the 23rd. But then all the doors in the installation have MFI chrome handles, and there are Greek pillars scattered around the medical centre, so maybe they have a thing about retro hardware.

I don't know how being injected into a bloodstream would present itself to human senses. And even if I did, I don't know how I would represent it with 1970s technology and a BBC budget. But I am pretty sure I could have come up with something better than the Doctor and Leela, superimposed over a swirly whirlpool, linking hands and spinning around like kids in a playground. If I was being nice, I would say that it looks as if they are in a washing machine. If I was being less nice, I would say that it looks as if they are being flushed down a toilet. Along with the credibility of the series.

Last season the Doctor's mind was projected into a universe created by the Master. It was still low-budget TV: two or three actors running around a quarry, intercut with stock footage. But Deadly Assassin Episode Three looks like grown-up TV: it almost looks Art House. Invisible Enemy Episode Three looks cheap. It looks silly. There is a weird white climbing frame, I suppose intended to represent brain cells; and there are a lot of redd- orange tunnels that put us somewhat in mind of the organic Zygon space ship. The anti-bodies (phagocytes) which attempt to destroy Leela look very much like furry white balloons.

There used to be a Jonah and the Whale attraction in the fun-fair at Blackpool. You entered through some fibreglass jaws; you walked around a dark maze, you had to squeeze through narrow foam apertures, you had to navigate wobbly floors and rope bridges; and you could hear a recorded heart beat that was meant to guide you to the centre of the maze. 

That's what Invisible Enemy Episode Three feels like: a giant brain-themed fun-house. My friend in the playground was right: whatever my brain would look like from the inside, it wouldn't be this. 

If we are going to spend twenty five minutes inside the Doctor's head -- inside the actual Doctor's actual head -- one feels something interesting ought to follow. All that Time Lord knowledge; all the terrible things he has seen; all those past and future selves. But only once in the episode is there the faintest attempt to show us that the Doctor's brain is a surprising and wondrous thing: he points out the "reflex link" through which he can "tune himself in" to the "Time Lord intelligentsia"; but adds that it doesn't work because he was thrown out. You might think that this would be foreshadowing or setting up some plot development -- maybe the Prawn is going to somehow infect all the Time Lords or hijack the super-mind? -- but the line is instantly forgotten and never mentioned again.

I always thought that the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey. Because he was bored. Now it is "revealed" -- in passing -- that he did not leave voluntarily: he was thrown out. 

What am I supposed to do with this kind of remark?

"Aha! So this is a very daring attempt to reintroduce some mystery into the character of the Doctor."

"Aha! So for some reason the Doctor is lying to Leela."

"Aha! So the clone Doctor has defective memories of his past."

No. Let it pass. Step away from the canon. Bob Baker and Dave Martin -- and, for that matter, Robert Holmes -- don't know or care about the Matrix. Deadly Assassin was long, long ago, last year, and everyone has forgotten it. It's just a line. Tune himself in to the Time Lord Intelligentsia. Doesn't work since I was thrown out. The TARDIS exists in a state of temporal grace, except when it doesn't. The TARDIS controls are isomorphic, except when they aren't. Someone left a cake out in the rain. The only way of viewing Doctor Who is to assume that the entire continuity is rebooted at the end of every episode.

K-9 says that cloning means taking a single cell from a person's body and growing a copy of them. This is what cloning usually means in science fiction. (This was before Dolly the Sheep.) It would probably have occurred to any thoughtful viewer that "growing" an adult clone would take decades; and that the clone would not have the memories or personality of the original. (A small girl wrote to the Radio Times and asked where the Doctor and Leela got their clothes from.) So the script backtracks: this is "not, in any real sense, a clone" but instead "a short lived, carbon based imprint" and "a sort of three dimensional photo" and finally, in so many words "a photocopy."

An entity which is both a clone and a photograph makes about as much sense as a creature which is both a viral infection in the brain and an incorporeal thought in the mind. (As much sense as a phenomenon which is both a wave and a particle.) Throughout the episode, the micro-Doctor talks as if he and the macro-Doctor are the same being. Things which happen to the original Doctor affect the clone. Micro-Leela feels a pain in her head when macro-Leela is hit; the Doctor says that if macro-Leela dies, micro-Leela will expire as well. And it works in reverse: when the antibodies are attacking Leela, micro-Doctor deliberately gives himself an electric shock, causing them to think that a different part of macro-Doctor's body is under attack.

If they are clones this makes no sense at all. If you punched my brother (even my twin brother) in the face you would not expect me to develop a black eye. It hardly makes any more sense if they are photographs or holograms. You can't make me bleed by stabbing a photo of me; and if I get a nosebleed the photo of me doesn't get one too. But if we pretended that the idea of the Doctor were trying to remove the idea of the virus from the Doctor's mind it kind of works. When the Doctor talks about "inside Leela" (as opposed to "outside Leela") he seems to be thinking of the clone / imprint / photocopy as a kind of dream-self or avatar. There is a strong tradition in fantasy mysticism that if your ethereal or dream-self is harmed then your physical or conscious self suffers.

Microscopic and macroscopic mean "very small" and "very big". Microcosm and macrocosm refer to the mystical idea that there is a connection or analogy between each individual and the universe as a whole. But Baker and Martin seem to be treating "microscopic" and "microcosmic" as synonyms. If Doctor Two is a microcosm of Doctor One -- if Doctor Two is the protrusion of Doctor One into a different reality -- it is possible to salvage some sense from the story. The Prawn is not merely a tiny little organism turned into a very big one; but an analogy for a neotic being projected into the physical world from the world of thought. Baker and Martin have come up with a story about a psychopomp reflection of the Doctor engaging in a spiritual journey through his own soul; and put a paper-thin scientific gloss on it. The science is deliberately silly to indicate that we are supposed to look the other way. "Shrinking" is a metaphor for being transformed into thought. "Small" is code for "spiritual, conceptual, imaginary".

Or perhaps the story just simply doesn't make any sense, and the writers, like the costume department, no longer give a damn.

Descartes said "I think therefore I am". He said it in Latin and French. Clever people call it the cogito. He meant that the fact that he had thoughts proved that he existed: the one thing that it is is impossible to doubt is the fact that you are having a thought. Sloppy minded people have often imagined that he meant "Thinking is great!" or "If I wasn't thinking about stuff, I don't know what I would be doing" or even "I am much better than all you plebs who don't do philosophy."

The Virus is all about thinking. It has chosen the Doctor as host because he is a lovely little thinker. Not just because he is the cleverest person in the room: thinking is a deliberate act and the Doctor does it more than anyone else. "The harder I think, the more of a grip it gets" he explains: it couldn't attack him in the TARDIS because his brain was idling; he is able to resist it by ceasing to think -- putting himself into a trance -- meditating. Cogito ergo sum infecta.

Leela doesn't need to go into a trance, or leave her brain idling. Leela is immune to the virus because, at some level, Leela does not think.

The Doctor thinks she is immune "because she is all instinct and intuition". Marius quite specifically frames the question in terms of a mind/body duality

"It could be a psychological factor."

"You mean not physical at all?"

"Yes, something in her mind, her way of looking at things."

"Aggression. Determination. Stamina. The predator's instinct."

Leela clearly does not have limited cognitive function: she isn't in any sense mentally retarded. Her problem-solving ability is quite good: when the Doctor explains a new concept she can quickly grasp it. But Marius writes her off as "stupid" because she doesn't know what the word "inoculation" means. She asks K-9 to restate "Efficacy of individuation not completely guaranteed" in simpler language. K-9 refuses. Leela is "stupid" in so far as she is ignorant and uneducated: because she lacks a scientific background and doesn't know the right buzzwords. K-9 is clever because he uses three syllables where one would do. The Doctor is vulnerable to the virus because he thinks a lot and knows long words. Leela is immune to the virus because she perceives the world around her without putting it into words, and because she often reacts to problems without intellectualising them first.

We might say that she is prone to let go of her conscious self and act on instinct. This was, as we may have mentioned, before Star Wars.

And this brings us to two of the oddest things about the whole mess. Small things, in the margin, which we probably overlook: and therefore very probably the key to the whole mystery.

In Episode One, Leela is shown writing her name on a blackboard. The TARDIS is infinitely large, so there is no reason that there wouldn't be an old bit of classroom equipment in one of the cupboards. The TARDIS is infinitely configurable, so there is no reason why it wouldn't produce a chalk board as the most user-friendly interface to a literacy programme. God knows, the interior of the TARDIS is going to do some stranger things before this season is out. But it's an odd moment. It isn't there for any particular reason. It's a bit of business, unreferenced in the script.

Most commentators have noticed the weird preponderance of phonetic, mis-spelt signage on Titan and the medical base: IMURJINSEE EGSIT and ISOLAYSHUN WARD. Our attention is never drawn to it; no-one in the story ever comments on it. It's a little like the penny farthing bicycle in the Prisoner: obviously important, yet never addressed.

I distinctly remember a moment in my childhood when I looked at a sign which said "GO" and realised that I was reading it whether I wanted to or not. "GO" is just what the shape said. Literate adults do not need to decode writing: the letters D O G, the sound "dog" and the smelly furry waggy thing are a single unity. The name "K-9" is funny (very slightly) because sound and meaning are separated: it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "K-9" could be understood as "canine". (After a few viewings of Star Wars, Threepio stops being a facetious spelling of 3PO and just becomes what he is called.) Similarly, it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "IMURJINSEE" means "Emergency". Leela, coming from a non-literate culture and still writing her name on the blackboard as "Lulu" must perceive all words like that. What if that difference in perception -- that inability to go from "EGSIT" to the concept of the way out, or to know that "inoculate" means "medicine-that-stops-you-getting-sick" were the very thing which makes her immune?

If you were to ask a philosopher "what is the interface between the mind and the brain" -- between the realm of concepts and the shared physical word, then he might reply, like Hamlet -- "words, words, words". Language is the mind-brain interface. So if the Virus exists in the place where mind intersects with the brain, it exists in words. The very thing that Leela does not fully understand.

Only a year before this story came out, a little known Cambridge biologist published a book on evolution in which he proposed that ideas -- especially ideas which he personally disliked -- spread and reproduced themselves like a virus, using human minds as a host. Meme's he called them: viruses of the mind.

Six or seven years before, William S Burroughs informed us that language was a virus from outer space.


Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (ii): The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy is based on a huge equivocation. 

Episode One is explicitly about possession. The Swarm inhabits and controls people's minds, passing from host to host by zapping them in the eyes with Force Lightening. It jumps into the TARDIS memory banks (because they are so advanced and clever) and then into the Doctor's Mind (because he is the cleverest person in the room). Later in the story, it possesses K-9, a robot, who is arguably capable of thinking but who certainly does not have an organic brain. But by Episode Four, the mind-virus has become a physical, prawn-like entity which infects the actual grey matter inside the Doctor's cranium, and which can (in principle) be resisted by antibodies in the blood-stream.

There is a kind of ghost story in which the ghost is real: the hero is a priest or mystic who knows how to exorcise it or lay it to rest. But there is a more secular kind of ghost story in which Harry Houdini, or the Rev. Tilney, or indeed Fred and Velma exorcise the ghost by explaining it away. It is still defeated; but it is defeated by the power of rationalism rather than the power of God. The demonic hound is turned into a perfectly ordinary german shepherd smeared with phosphorescent paint; the Mummy turns out to be an unscrupulous archeologist who wanted to steal a gem from the museum. And he would have gotten away with it too, if not for...

The Invisible Enemy may make slightly more sense if we try to read it in that way. The spiritual force which has possessed the minds of the astronauts, the station manager, and the Doctor is drawn out of the realm of ideas into the real world. It escapes from the surreal mindscape of the Doctor's brain and manifests in a mainstream science fiction world of corridors and airlocks. It is transformed from a force which might have made the Doctor murder Leela into one more megalomaniac alien who wants to rule the universe. ("For no adequately explored reason" as the next script editor but one would have put it.)

So perhaps the inadequacy of the Prawn Special Effect is not unintentional. The Nucleus is supposed to be ridiculous: Science! has rendered it non-threatening. The Doctor calls it "a pathetic crustacean". (Tom Baker reportedly sang the theme song from "Prawn Free" whenever it came on set.) Drawn out of the realm of thought into the realm of bodies, it can be defeated.

Not, in the end, with an antidote; but with a very large bomb.

We start with three men in space suits. They would not have looked out of place in any Patrick Troughton story. We have a space ship that looks distinctly like a space shuttle. The Space Shuttle was much in people's minds: the first testing flights, off the back of a Jumbo Jet, had taken place the previous August. They have the kind of conversation that these kinds of space-men always have in this kind of story, gently telling the viewer that space travel is not glamorous and heroic but a routine slog. ("Look, I qualified for exploration eight years ago, and what am I? Glorified garage attendant on some planetary filling station.")

And then a Thing happens. 

The spacemen get possessed by an alien force. They start talking in monotones about how "contact has been made" and "this planet will be suitable for our purpose". We can tell they have been possessed because they have sinister white fur on their skins, like out of date blackberries.

This is standard issue Doctor Who, and it is not badly done. The music is extreme and melodramatic and the acting is completely over the top. Innocent lines like: "I will stay with them to guard the nucleus and destroy the reject" become "to GUARD the nucleus, and to...des TROY...... the reject", jabbing one finger in the air and then making a fist. Alarms go off, maydays are issued; we see extreme close ups of trigger fingers on ray-guns. 

We know how this plays out. The Doctor arrives on the base, finds it besieged by the possessed astronauts; and begins a race against time to find the cure while more and more of the humans succumb to the infection.

But Bob Baker and Dave Martin, to their credit, throw away the rule book. The Invisible Enemy does not proceed according to formula. In Scene One, the space shuttle gets zapped by the alien force, and the three space men get possessed. In Scene Two, the TARDIS itself gets zapped, and the mysterious alien force takes over the Doctor. He resists it by putting himself into a trance.

This is not merely quite a good twist: it's a mild subversion of the whole idea behind Doctor Who. Or, if you are certain kind of 1970s Whovian, a terrible debunking of its magic. The Doctor is meant to function as a deus ex machina who comes along and sorts everything out. This time he's directly threatened. Indeed, he himself is the threat.

The question is not "Can the Doctor save the space-men?" but "Who can save the Doctor?"

The answer, being "The Doctor", obviously enough.

Horror of Fang Rock felt like the continuation of the Hinchcliffe era by other means. Invisible Enemy feels like a dissonant change of tone. The old silver TARDIS control room is back, and Leela feels incongruous in it: not merely a savage on a space ship, but an imposter on a set created in a different era. She is not the same character she was even a week ago. She is back in her leather bikini, but she spends a good chunk of the first episode wearing the Doctor's hat: at one point she appears to be chewing on his scarf. (We hardly notice the oddness of the Doctor's costume any more. They are on a spaceship. He is in outdoor clothes; Leela is dressed for the beach.) In Fang Rock, the Doctor and Leela were two grown up, mutually respecting characters who had conversations with each other. Invisible Enemy is full of this kind of thing:

"Saint Elmo's fire. It happens at sea."

"Saint Elmo's?"

"Yes, it causes a sort of halo effect round the masts of ships."


"Why do you keep repeating everything I say? You're not a parrot, are you?"


"Yes. A parrot's a bird that repeats things. Move over."

"Move over".

This hardly qualifies as dialogue: it is a bit of panto, a cross-talk routine of this kind Basil Brush had with Mr Roy on a weekly basis. Leela is the comedy primitive; the Doctor is the comedy smart-alec. No longer characters: more like Doctor and Leela off the back of a box of Weetabix. 

In order to cure the Doctor of his possession, it is necessary to get from Titan to a Centre for Alien Biomorphology in the asteroid belt. Leela suggests that they "take the TARDIS". Lowe, the supervisor of the crew of the Titan Base, himself possessed by the virus, tells them where Biomorphology Centre is; and the Doctor comes out of his trance to tell them the coordinates. Leela, who can't reliably write her own name, programmes them in.

In the past, the TARDIS was de facto and sometimes canonically involatile. You are safe once you are inside it: but you can't go back to it until you have finished this month's adventure. Now the Doctor can be zapped in his own control room by what is, frankly, a distinctly second division bad guy. And the TARDIS can be used to give people a lift from one part of the story to another, and a not particularly clever companion can operate it. Lowe's TARDIS trip takes place off-stage. We don't find out if he was surprised by the TARDIS' internal dimensions. And in a way, why should we? We take the TARDIS -- and the Doctor -- for granted; so why shouldn't the non-player characters?

But a TV show where the Doctor is a clever alien with an impressive vehicle is a lot different from one in which the Doctor is a mysterious wanderer with a wondrous Ship. Horror of Fang Rock would have been over very quickly if it had occurred to the Doctor to use the TARDIS as a taxi to ferry everyone back to the main land.

Once they arrive on the Centre For Alien Morphology (which turns out to be a space hospital) the story, and indeed the series, pretty much turns into a cartoon. Was I the only person who saw the hollowed out asteroid, with a Red Cross emblazoned on the surface, and thought we'd moved to the Clanger's moon Oliver Postgate could have supplied a better class of prawn.

We meet some nurses in strange green uniforms and eye make up. We notice some mis-spelt notices. And we encounter a scientist with a beard and a silly accent, who keep taking ticker tape out of the mouth of a robot dog.

Leela was, we are often told "something for the dads": K-9 was arguably something for the kids. We have shifted from a world where astronauts talk like truckers and drink liquor in the mess to a world where scientists with beards and tweed jackets talk pseudo science in Dr Zarkov accents. Nerdy kids like big words: I can remember driving my parents mad saying "deactivate it" instead of "turn it off". But we have had Hal and we are weeks away from Threepio and Zen and Marvin: a robot who says "affirmative" and "negative" instead of yes and no feels retro. It is never quite clear if K-9 is mainly a toy, a pet, or if Doctor Zarkov actually needs a portable computer with a death ray in its nose and has made it dog shaped on a whim. I felt, and still feel, that a group of Daleks sliding around the studio floor in formation look cool and alien; but K-9 just comes across as a shopping trolly or a motorised wheel chair.

Basil Brush had a battery operated toy dog called Ticker that would interrupt Mr Roy's stories by doing back-flips and barking. ("Quiet Ticker. Shut your little bone-shoot.")

According to K-9, what the Doctor has been possessed by is an "unidentified viral type infection with noetic characteristics" which is "at present seated in the mind-brain interface and therefore having no ascertainable mass or structure".

Nous is "mind"; noetikos is "intellectual"; "noetics" means the philosophy of mind. So, "a virus with noetic characteristics" might simply mean "a micro-organism which can think for itself". But this micro-organism exists in the place where the material universe (the brain) interfaces with the immaterial (the mind) and therefore has no weight or form. So I think that by "virus with noetic characteristics" the comic relief robot means "a microscopic pathogen which shares some features in common with thoughts". Thoughts, after all, have no mass or structure. Arguably.

The idea that the mind and the brain are different things is called Cartesian Dualism, after Descartes, who is also to blame for Calculas. Arguably. The question Cartesian Dualism can't answer (arguably) is how the supposedly perfect, incorporeal "mind" interacts with that lump of matter we call the brain. Descartes' answer was "through the pineal gland" which presumably went down better in the seventeenth century that it does today.

If the brain and the mind are separate, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much inconceivable. If the mind is simply the word we use for some of the things the brain does, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much without meaning. And it is in this inconceivable, meaningless place that the virus-with-thought-like-qualities resides. The Doctor is being controlled from a place which does not exist by a thing which does not exist.

What did Bob Baker and Dave Martin think they were doing? Were they making a serious attempt to use a children's TV show to talk about the mind/body problem. Tea-time philosophy for tots, as it were? Are they dimly trying to draw an analogy between the virus and quantum mechanics? A photon is in some sense a wave and a particle simultaneously: and the Nucleus is in some sense both an organism and an idea?

Or were they just filling the air with meaningless gibberish?



Doctor Who 15.2 (i): The Invisible Enemy

It is funny how the mind works.

I remember talking about Hand of Fear at lunch time in primary school; but the person in the memory is not me. In my mind's eye I see a little child with his two little friends, sitting around a blue formica table. I see one of the dinner ladies, The Fat Miss, or as it might be The Grumpy Miss, watching closely to see if a flicked baked bean or some spilled water would give her a pretext to send one of them to stand outside the headmaster's office.

It is the olden days: those happy golden years when willies and bums and farts were the highest form of wit.

But I also remember talking about the Invisible Enemy at lunch time in secondary school: and the person I remember is a younger version of me. Eleven years old now, a sophisticated chap talking to another sophisticated chap about that show we happened to have watched on the television at the weekend.

The child regenerates into the man. I sometimes think Eleven is the real me and everything since has been a digression. All children but one grow up. Eleven is the beginning of the end.

Mum and Dad took me to watch the cricket. Mum was secretary of the village team and sometimes kept score for them. I realise that going to the park and watching village cricket and drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches and looking for conkers sounds like a parody of an english childhood, but it is very nearly true. (The sandwiches were more likely to be cheese and pickle.) I remember not particularly paying attention to the cricket one Sunday afternoon and idley looking through the Sunday Mirror, or possibly the Observer. My parents were figuratively and literally Guardian readers, but the Guardian doesn't come out on a Sunday. July or August, it must have been, a month or so before Doctor Who and therefore school started up again after the summer break. The BBC must have been promoting the new season.

There, in the paper, innocently sitting on a particular page for anyone to see, was a picture of Doctor Who.

And Leela.

And...a robot.

A robot in the shape of a dog.

A robot in the shape of a dog called K-9.

I think he was photographed by a lamppost. The copy editor couldn't resist spelling out the joke: K-9 Ps 2.

Doctor Who was going to have a pet robot dog.

It was one of those things which you become obsessed with for no reason. It became a mantra, a thing to chant when I was happy or when I wanted to annoy my sister (which was nearly always). Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. And his name's gonna be K-9.

Singing ay ay ippy ippy ay...

This was before Star Wars, just barely. October, November, December, January: four whole months when I knew K-9 but didn't know Artoo Deetoo.

When I saw Invisible Enemy, I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Sun Makers I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Underworld, I had not seen Star Wars.

Divide time in two. Before John Lennon died; after John Lennon died. Before Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister; after Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Before Star Wars, after Star Wars.

Ante Bella Sidrum. 

K-9 came first.

The golden era of Doctor Who was over. It used to be the thing the cool kids watched. Then it was the thing which everyone watched. But it was becoming a thing which I watched. A thing which I could see was second rate, but for which I still felt a deep love. A love of Tom Baker. A love of Daleks. A love of silliness for silliness' sake. I had watched every story since Carnival of Monsters, an inconceivable amount of time ago and I was not going to give up.

"Do you really imagine for one second that that is what the inside of your brain would look like?" asked Kevin in morning break on Monday 17 October 1977. (Morning break. We were eleven. We did not talk about play-time any more.)

"Of course not" I said "But I am not a Time Lord."

I thought it was a clever answer.

Insufferable little geek.

What does it mean to be an embodied consciousness?

What is the difference between the brain and the mind?

Am I reducible to the lump of grey matter in my head, or is there some essence-of-me that exists apart from the atoms I am composed of?

Should we think in terms of body and soul or hardware and software -- or is trying to think of the mind as distinct from the brain on a level with trying to think of 23 miles per hour as distinct from the car?

Can things other than brains have minds?

Would an artificial brain have a mind?

What are the limits of artificial intelligence?

Could a machine have a personality -- even a sense of humour?

Could a human befriend a computer?

Or is the idea of "befriending" a robot on the same level as befriending a teapot?

Should I think of my mind as the rational, logical part of me; and my emotions and gut-feelings as by-products of the meat-sack my mind is housed in?

Or should I rather see my reasoning ability as simply an on-board calculator and data-base, and my instincts and feelings as constituting the real me?

If you made an exact physical copy of my brain would you have made a copy of my mind?

Is making an exact physical copy of me more like giving birth to a child who happens to look a lot like his father?

Or is it more like taking a photograph?

How does the mind work?

These are the kinds of philosophical question which The Invisible Enemy shows absolutely no interest in answering.

We all remember the Giant Shrimp.

It isn't the first silly monster to appear in Doctor Who. But in the past, we were mostly able to see what the production team was trying for and explain why it didn't come off. The Giant Rat looks silly because we are cutting between real rats in realistic location shots and an obvious puppet in an obvious model. There is nothing actually very wrong with the puppet per se. The Loch Ness Monster is not irredeemably ridiculous; but the primitive green-screen effects make it look absurdly out of sync with the Scottish Moors and Big Ben.

But the only possible response to the Giant Shrimp is "What on earth were they thinking?"

Yes, Doctor Who didn't have much money to throw around, and they had already blown the budget on K-9. But that's no excuse: these are skilled model makers and costume designers. The sequences of space shuttles flying through asteroid fields and landing in moon bases at the beginning of Episode One may not have troubled Industrial Light and Magic (or even Gerry Anderson) but they are decent models. They might not have won an Oscar but they would comfortably have won second prize in the Hornby Model Train Club Awards. Briefed to take £10 worth of crepe paper and tin foil and make a fancy dress costume that suggests a virus, they could surely have done better than this?

A Prawn for goodness sake.

Perhaps they were doing it deliberately. Perhaps Robert Holmes, still smarting from the way the BBC blue-pencilled Deadly Assassin, started consciously or unconsciously undermining the stories on which he is working out his notice. Perhaps the costume people have noticed that, however much they knock themselves out making a scary costume, Tom is going to undercut it with some ad lib about Jelly Babies, so they might as well meet him halfway and give him something ridiculous out of which to take the piss.

Graham Williams and Derrick Goodwin were new to Doctor Who: it is possible that there are tricks you can do with camera angles and lighting to make shit monsters look less shit, and they simply hadn't learned them yet.

For god's sake, it's on casters, and no-one tries to disguise the fact that it's on casters

But the Giant Prawn On Wheels skews our perception of The Invisible Enemy. It is literally the only thing we remember about the story. And the problem with the Prawn is not that it is a monumentally unconvincing representation of a virus. The problem with the Prawn is that it should never have looked like a Prawn to begin with.

I have been thinking about the Invisible Enemy for nearly half a century. Something very, very obvious just occurred to me.

The monster is officially called The Nucleus of the Swarm. The costume department must have been asked to make a costume representing The Nucleus of the Swarm, and misheard the word.

"The nucleus of the prawn".

Now I've thought it I will never be able to unthink it, and neither will you.

That's how the mind works.