...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, January 28, 2013

Day 4411: DOCTOR WHO: Oh Happy Day


Today is the Twenty-Seventh Anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster; it is Two Hundred years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice (no Zombies); and Daddy is One Hundred and Forty-Seven Billion, No Millions, Fifteen Thousand and Sixty years old. (Adding up on my flappy feet, I MAY have lost count.)

Better bung on "The Happiness Patrol"!

Given the set-up, the only way "The Happiness Patrol" could end is with Margaret Thatcher-analogue (certainly in the performance if not necessarily in the script) Helen A in tears.

But do we want to see the Doctor make the villain cry?

And only a few years later, the real world would see virtually the same woman in tears as she left Downing Street. Did we gloat? Did we "dance on her grave"? Or did we feel sympathy for the monster?

This isn't a question of whether Helen A deserves to be overthrown and punished for her acts. She is clearly depicted as responsible for murder, both indirectly as the one giving orders to the Happiness Patrol and directly when she pushes the button for the fondant surprise. Her government's policies kill people for being sad and twist the lives of everyone else by enforcing false happiness.

It's important that we recognise that, in spite of Sheila Hancock's gleeful caricature, this is a very standard Doctor Who Nazi allegory: the uniforms may be pink rather than black but the M.O. is identical, from the "othering" of a minority (with the "smile" badges to reward conformity, so reminiscent of yellow stars and pink triangles), through the keeping of lists and records, to the state control of economic assets. Even the expressionist sets are making us think of 1930's Germany, and all the face-paint is very "Cabaret".

The simple conflation of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative governments of the 1980s and Nazism was an easy cliché of the decade (much as the "more right wing than Thatcher" smear is the cry of the current generation against the Coalition, to which one is inclined to say: "you should have tried living in the '80s"). But were they really Nazis?

Is it legitimate, even in exaggerated satire, to equate the Thatcher governments of the 'Eighties with the Nazis? The evidence is mixed (and it's troubling that there's even the possibility of a "yes").

Of course we recognise that "Nazi" and "Commie" are debased terms, used as insults and as opposites by the sort of people who assume that Communism and organised Labour and "left wing" are virtual synonyms and therefore by extension "Nazi" must be the right wing equivalent, when in fact (read your Orwell) there is very little difference between the two apart from some emphasis on the cult of personality, and identification of who is to blame for the economic condition of the workers. Communism and Nationalism are both working-class based mass-movements prone to violent collective action against the perceived "other" and, like any human organisation, subject to subversion from within by a ruling elite with their own agenda.

(Note on Orwell: our set-top-box is set to record every Saturday play, because we're very Radio 4 and every now and again there are ones we actually want (James Bond). But of course this week it didn't record one we really wanted, a rather good adaptation of "Animal Farm"… Because, obviously, for this one week the EPG read "The Real George Orwell" rather than "Saturday Drama". Humbug. Time to try the iPlayer.)

In contrast, the Thatcher governments sought to disperse economic (although not social) power as widely as possible, through programmes of privatisation, council house sales, tax cuts and market liberalisation.

Certainly, it was a brutal and unforgiving period – far more so than the Coalition have been – with large tranches of British industry forced out of public ownership and allowed to go bankrupt with little or no safety net for the communities left scarred and blighted as a result. Economically, though, this de-nationalisation is the exact opposite of National Socialism. Thatcherism as a theory supposedly venerated the individual as opposed to the fascist ideal of stronger together. The Lady was both more complicated and more simple – I think she venerated both, but only “together” in terms of nationalism (remember, she made Britain the most centralised state in Europe). Ultimately she replaced her worship of "the market" with frothing Europhobia, the jingoistic last resort, as it were. The same tension between atomised markets and protective nationalism tears at the Tories today.

The Falklands War, while easily classified as Imperial – and the signature engagement, the sinking of the Belgrano, was a war crime under Britain's own rules – but was also unsought and in defence of self-determination against an invading dictatorship. Not that Lady T was ideologically opposed to all dictators, as testified by her closeness to General Pinochet (tying herself to "routine disappearances" as in the show; nor should we forget the "shoot-to-kill" allegations of "Death on the Rock" and other rumours.)

There was a definite use of "othering" by the Conservatives of the 'Eighties, but their principal target was the Trade Union movement, infamously described as "the enemy within" by Mrs Thatcher, and subject to brutal repression whether by proxy at Wapping (1986) or in the year-long miners' strike. (1984-5).

Her government's treatment of gay people – ostensibly the metaphor of "The Happiness Patrol"; happy = gay, geddit – was more mixed, ranging from the robust response to the emerging AIDS crisis to riding the anti-Sixties backlash and moral panic that culminated in Section 28. The '80s were when the gays suddenly became a major political issue (used to bash left and liberals, and simply bash gays). But at the same time Thatcher's rhetoric of individual freedom was being taken seriously by some people – even when her actions showed it as empty words. It was an era of transition, when gay rights had to be fought for, but when the groundwork was laid for the rights being won in the 'Nineties and 'Noughties and still today. When stereotypes were still seen all over the TV, but new and positive portrayals were just starting to emerge. Then (as now) the loudest anti-equality voices were religious and small-c conservative fringe, the James Andertons and Mary Whitehouses, and a vocal minority on the Conservative backbenches. That's not to excuse a government that went along with it.

I started off this section assuming that it would be easy to disprove, but I find more and more that the Conservatives were all too willing to use the techniques of the Nazis to protect their rule through "divide and conquer". It seems more that it was the British people who were becoming more liberal through the 'Eighties and that the government (of the minority) was reactionary against that.

And I wonder what I'll think looking back on the Coalition years from a similar perspective when Twenty-Forty comes around. That "othering", that scapegoating rears its ugly head once more, whether it is the culture of blame the bankers (all too reminiscent of the "Zionist conspiracy" accusation) or the Prime Minister's recent speech on Europe raising the old Tory xenophobia. Or the way both Labour's Liam Byrne and the Conservative's George Osborne have picked on benefits claimants (whether your language is "workers v shirkers" or "strivers v skivers", it's equally objectionable).

Most of the time, "Nazis = bad" goes as an unchallenged assertion in Doctor Who. The Daleks, for example, are virtually evil by definition because they are the Space Nazis. In fact, by deconstructing the Nazi iconography, "The Happiness Patrol" makes one of the better cases for why Nazis actually are bad.

Almost every Doctor Who story – almost every melodrama, in fact – contains a cathartic moment (cathartic for the audience anyway) where the villain gets dealt their – usually-fatal – just deserts. This can be horrific, or occasionally comic, and often with a sense of poetic justice.

"Monsters" tend to be exploded (Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans), melted (Ice Warriors, Giant Robot, Terileptils, Haemovores), buried (Silurians, Sea Devils, the other Silurians) or just plain deactivated (Yeti); while the human or humanoid "villains" are more likely to either have their allies turn on them (especially if played by Kevin Stoney or Roger Delgado!) or the Avengers stand-by "killed with their own weapon" (Harrison Chase and his fertiliser machine; Styggron and his virus; in this very story, the Kandy-Man is melted by his own boiling sucrose). Arguably Davros achieves both at once.

What we don't often get is the sense that it is traumatic for the losing villain, that they are hurt, upset. Death – ironically – makes it easier by never giving the baddies the chance to react to their own defeat; by never expecting us to have to empathise with them.

Empathy is terribly important in "The Happiness Patrol". It is empathy that enables us to feel sad when sad things happen to other people. We understand Susan Q's despair because we can share Ace's empathy for her. Even when it is clear Ace doesn't understand her friend's thoughts and feelings she can still share the pain they cause. In contrast, it is the lack of empathy that allows Helen A to do terrible things.

What, then, are we to make of the Doctor, who can reduce a woman to abject weeping and just look on?

And bear in mind, this comes in a story between one where the Doctor talks an intelligent alien into suicide and another where he pushes another woman over the edge into madness and self-immolation.

The Doctor in this story is not human, barely even a life-form, more a force like Nemesis (see also the subsequent story). That makes him powerful, but it makes him cold. He breezes through the story, quite casually taking everyone's world apart – whether it's playing mindgames with the Happiness Patrol or gluing the Kandy-Man to the floor of his own Kandy Kitchen (though imagine if the Doctor had kneecapped Priscilla P with her own fun-gun instead of similarly incapacitating the Kandy-Man with his own lemonade...)

Ironically, his most famous line from this story "Look me in the eye; end my life" is about as bald a statement of the power of human empathy as you can get.

Here, he's like a djinn, answering Ace's wishes. Ace, remember, started this story wanting to make the Happiness Patrol, and Helen A's regime "very unhappy". It's almost as though he's taking her to face these things and using her response to judge whether or not to topple this week's empire. Telling, if that's so, that he got rid of the more mature (!) Melanie and took the black-and-white opinions of the teenager instead.

At the end, Ace confronted by Helen A in grief actually asks the question on the audience's behalf: "isn't there something we should do?"

The Doctor's reply is up there with the end of "The Family of Blood" for his most wrath-of-god harshness: "'Tis done".

Ace has got what she – and we the audience – wished for, but, being very human, she's not happy about it.

Of course, that empathy with Helen A's grief is what makes Ace a better person. And we, the audience, are being asked to be like Ace, not the Doctor.

Next Time... going backwards... It's Melanie Bush. Played by Kate O'Mara. I'd say you have to see it to believe it, but frankly credibility doesn't really come into it. It's time to mount a defence of the indefensible and the strange matter that is "Time and the Rani". Shut your Tetrap! I only arsked!


Iain Coleman said...

Are you sure the sinking of the Belgrano was a war crime? The captain of said ship is one of those who would disagree.

Millennium Dome said...

This is one of those cases where you can't just trim what I said to "war crime". I was careful to say "under Britain's own rules".

The British government defined our rules of engagement and set the limits of the exclusion zone. I understand that there is, ahem, some dispute as to the *direction* the Belgrano was headed, but there is no dispute over the fact she was *not* within the exclusion zone when we sank her.

We broke our own rules.