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.



Gavin Burrows said...

"She asks K-9 to restate "Efficacy of individuation not completely guaranteed" in simpler language. K-9 refuses."

It goes a bit like that whenever I try to read post-structuralist theory. No wonder I like Leela so much.

Characters in genre fiction often don't even affect at psychological depth. They're there to represent ideas, and interact with the other characters like elements in an equation. The Doctor being about the idea of the Doctor has been explicitly said within the show before now.

So, maybe...

The mini-Doctor and mini-Leela are simultaneously recursive and enhancing. 'Cloning' here really means a magic spell which produces the condensed essence of something. Neat, distilled Good Thoughts to battle the evil prawn's Bad Thoughts. And mini_leela is even more about the idea of Leela than Leela, hence all the stuff about unfettered instinct.

This may well be recursive in itself, as its based more on your reaction to a story than the thing itself. Which, after all, I last saw nearly forty-five years ago.

voxpoptart said...

I've never seen this episode, unless I did when I was 10 and just watching whatever PBS showed me. It sounded well worth skipping as an adult, but you make me think I would actively have hated it.

Leela was my favorite pre-Ace companion: partly because Chris Boucher's concept for her was so thoughtfully developed, partly because Louise Jamieson was the kind of actress who could elevate anything. She must have had a hard time with the dialogue you've quoted. And my sons and I are unabashed fans of K-9, with an assist from the novelists (James Goss, Gareth Roberts, Lawrence Miles) who've been very interested indeed in exploring his nature and interiority. Wow, he's a condescending twit in his debut, huh?

As for exploring the inside of the Doctor's brain, Paul Cornell made that fascinating in 'Timewyrm: Revelation'. Doctor Who has a lot of advantages in book form, the irrelevance of special effect budgets being a key one. But authorial effort, or lack thereof, matters too. Which of course is why an essay about a stupid episode can be so much more interesting than the episode itself.