Too Long a Season

I’d somehow missed out on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d seen the crossover movie Star Trek: Generations (David Carson, 1994) and even taught Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) and I’d seen odd episodes, but not the in-depth, episode to episode viewing of a TV-run. Was it on SKY? I didn’t and still don’t have that, but more to the point, aside from a brief period in 1991, I didn’t have regular access to TV between 1988 and 1992. I suppose I knew enough people with boxsets or off-air recordings, but I didn’t care enough.

I came to it partly with a curiosity about the 44 minute story arc. Most American drama has this pattern and for crime it seems to work ok – soapish preamble, crime committed, work the streets, red herring, nab the suspect, interrogation and wry afterword. Firefly also seemed to pull it off, as did Buffy and Angel before it. Doctor Who, on the other hand, doesn’t, although perhaps I’m brainwashed by the sitcom-in-clusters-of-four format of the original run. The alien society is barely established – although the inclination is to be Earth-bound and it cranks the jeopardy up to eleven very fast. Then the Doctor rewrites someone’s DNA or reverses the polarity of the neutron flow and everything is hunky dory timey wimey.

Someone, I forget who, suggested that Firefly (and by extension ST: TNG) works because of a bigger cast. We end up with three parallel narratives that dovetail together. Doctor Who probably bifurcates into the Doctor’s narrative and his companion’s, the companion getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. We get insufficient parallax on the nova. I did recently wonder whether the Doctor, as virtual superhero is so resourceful and fixed that he doesn’t offer the scope for a character arc, the writers instead focusing on the companion’s experiences, taking audience identification too far. We end up with The Amy Pond Adventures or Clara Who? But then the character arcs of virtually all continuing dramas are keyed much more to restoration than the transformation of the feature film.

To be honest, I don’t recall if the original Star Trek was closer in satisfaction to Firefly than nu-Who. It’s decades since I saw more than the odd episode and my tastes are perhaps more sniping. I’d seen and actually quite enjoyed bits of Enterprise, where the missions were a bit rougher around the edges. But the OS crew were my crew and so here we have their replacements. Picard is the new Kirk, clearly an authority figure, less likely to go on dangerous missions, and keeping it more in his trousers than Kirk ever did. The romantic lead duties are passed onto his Number One (stop sniggering) Riker, waved of hair and hairy of chest, and Picard’s BFF rather too quickly. Spock had been the deputy, and science officer, so here we have an android, Data, who is learning to be human (“Call me Pinocchio”) and thus doesn’t have appropriate emotions in his logic. My favourite character of the old series was Bones, but here we have Dr Beverly Crusher, seeming to be an old flame of Picard’s and widow of an officer killed on his watch. Crusher has her son with her, Wesley, presumably an identification figure for the child audience. Deanna Troi is a counsellor, who gets to state the bleeding obvious. Then there’s Geordie, whose accent is as convincing as Scottie’s and who wears a hair band over his eyes. Then there’s Worf, a grumpy Klingon, and Tasha Yar, who seems to be some kind of bouncer for the Enterprise.

So, having made it to the end of the first series, what do I think? The original series was famed for its diversity – it had a woman of colour on the crew as a receptionist. Baby steps. Twenty years later and in the regular cast we have three women – a doctor, a counsellor and Tasha Yar. Being a doctor is arguably above being a nurse (the other female rôle in TOS, aside from love interest), but it is a caring, nurturing profession in theory and she is also a mother. Troi as empath is meant to be all touchy feely and is able to say that she thinks the strangers they meet are hiding things because she doesn’t realise she’s in a drama that depends on such things. Yar, meanwhile, also gets to be suspicious of strangers because that’s her job as bouncer. Although sometimes she gets to operate the transporters. She’s clearly under used and one can only imagine how frustrated the actor was.

We have two actors of colour on the bridge – most obviously Geordie (and there’s an episode when we see a grown up Wesley and he’s pretty impressed by what he sees – could he also tick the diversity box that broadens ST’s notorious heteronormativity?). Then there’s Worf – and whilst there’s no reason that actors of colour shouldn’t play aliens, there’s an allegorical minefield in which seeing aliens as people of colour feeds into seeing people of colour as aliens (see also under: racism and monkeys). As a Klingon he’s presumably stereotyped as a military man (although you should try his delicious angel cakes) but surely Yar is the military officer? Or are there two military officers on this much-vaunted we-come-in-peace (for certain cohorts of mankind) mission?

Not all the regular cast are in each episode, and I get the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with half of the crew. Of course, you could argue that at any one time a third of the crew ought to be tucked up in bed and so this is to be expected, but we don’t see that kind of daily life. I think the dramatis personae were assembled with issues in mind, but the writers haven’t quite got there. Ah, young Wesley has discovered something but he’s a kid so let’s not believe him. Again.

Let’s take “Angel One” (25 January 1988) as the archetypal episode. The Enterprise arrives at an alien matriarchy in search of survivors from a crashed ship, Odin, and interacts with the local women, although it turns out that all they really needed was a real man such as Riker – because, presumably, a matriarchy is not true equality.

Except it turns out that this was an allegory for the situation in South Africa in the Apartheid era. Excuse me. So are the women Whites and the men Blacks and Coloureds? Or vice versa? How does that work then? Meanwhile, note that with the away team constituted the way it is in this episode, an African American gets to sit in the captain’s chair. Progress, only he comes down with the manflu that is the b-plot of the episode. I’m not at all clear what the episode has to say about Apartheid. “Why can’t we all just get along?”? Star Fleet has this non-intervention policy (which is obviously as consistent as that of Gallifrey in Pertwee-era Who) that is ironic in Reagan’s America and enables the crew to debate Moral Rightness with a not always unbearable smugness.

The final two episodes threaten to rip Star Fleet apart and introduce new aliens, the Romulans. Clearly this is the point when they think they’ve got their mojo. Having carefully established that when space missions last years, crew want their families with them, in “Conspiracy” (9 May 1988) the Enterprise pops back to Earth to investigate a conspiracy. The scheme seems to include worm eating. The Enterprise and Picard turn out to be top dogs in Star Fleet. The following week, in “The Neutral Zone” (16 May 1988), they pick up an abandoned spaceship and defrost from inside it three people from old Earth of a couple of centuries ago. The job of the episode is to demonstrate how far human civilisation has come: a woman is concerned with her children and her children’s descendants, one of whom has her husband’s name (because these things never alter); a man who wants to check his stock market portfolio but not his privilege (and Picard talks about how civilisation is beyond things like money now like he’s some kind of commie) and a man who wants to hit the bars and pick up some ladies (although Riker would be a better wingman than Data, frankly). These are the values the 24th century have left behind. Supposedly. They’ve also left behind incurable diseases and Wesley’s manflu from the plot device holodeck shows how little immunity the crew have to such things.

The Enterprise heads off into the unknown, or Season Two.

A Plague on Both Your Tin Mines

The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966)

The first zombie movie was released in 1968 – this must be true, as I heard this on the radio several times last year (and an article doesn’t quite say it ). So clearly I hallucinated this DVD of a 1966 film I encountered as I work my way through the Ultimate Hammer Boxset. (Although, let it be said, that this boxset is far from ultimate as boxsets go.)

There is a reasonably familiar horror/Hammer narrative. People from London travel to remote village full of suspicious locals and disturbing events. Rather than the bloodsucking vampires of the Dracula films, we have blooddraining zombie masters, and the incomers are a London-based doctor (André Morell) and his daughter (Diane Clare), responding to a letter from a local GP (Brook Williams) about a mysterious plague. Rather than a mittel-European village, surrounded by not even trying day-for-night filming, there’s a Cornish village. They are worried about incomers, just not necessarily about the right incomers.

The vampire narrative is easy to read in Marxist terms, indeed, Marx explicitly writes about capitalists sucking blood and surplus labour/profit being undead. “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” he writes in Capital, elsewhere he discusses “British industry, which, vampire like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.” Engels adds, “But here, too, necessity will force the working-men to abandon the remnants of a belief which, as they will more and more clearly perceive, serves only to make them weak and resigned to their fate, obedient and faithful to the vampire property-holding class.“

In Plague we have peasants being turned into zombified labourers through the manipulation of blood. Perhaps to maintain heteronormativity, it’s female rather than male blood being drained. The peasants as zombified slaves are counterparted by drummers from the Caribbean, with the kind of casual racism of Hammer’s She (Robert Day, 1965).

If the real villains of the piece are the squire (John Carson) and the huntsmen, the peasants seem disturbingly disposable – it’s the professional middle classes we’re meant to be concerned for. Indeed, just like Jonathan Harker in the original Dracula, although the doctor Sir James Forbes is closer in class to Dr Seward. We’re not even that bothered about the good local doctor’s wife, Alice Mary Tompson (Jacqueline Pearce), as we know she’s going to turn into Servalan.

It perhaps should be objected that if you want an efficient workforce in your tin mine, than a zombie workforce may not be the best choice. Such has struck me before – in the various cyberslave armies in new Doctor Who somewhat ad nauseam, although that itself possibly begins with the robomen in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (21 November 1964–26 December 1964).

The Incredible Hulke

Michael Herbert (2014) Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications), ISBN: 978-1910170090, 30 pages

I’d heard somewhere about the scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke being left of centre, although I’m not sure where from. I knew him through Doctor Who novelisations from the 1970s. Most were based on serials he’d written – although the titles were often changed from the television versions, none of which I’d seen. Some of them I had caught up with on TV or DVD over the years.

There was something about his aliens that was different. All too often, aliens stand in for difference, and thus a threat – within the Hollywood tradition as invaders, frequently to be read as the foreign threat of the age, typically the Communist. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), say, can be read as McCarthyite parable (or a satire of McCarthyism … or an attack on normalising America). Only rarely – The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), ET, The Extra-terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), say – do they come in peace. Hulke’s aliens tended not to be the villains of the piece, although humans often assumed they were at first. He often used reptilian characters – the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Draconians, the dinosaurs …. (well, duh). There’s an article in that to be written somewhere.

A week or so back an old comrade Mike Sanders drew my attention to a review of a pamphlet, Doctor Who and the Communist, in the Morning Star. This was published by Five Leaves Publications, a Nottingham-based radical small press who had published fascinating collections on Utopias and Map and appear to have opened a shop that is the natural successor to the much-missed Mushroom Bookshop.

The pamphlet, by socialist historian Michael Herbert, is thin. Well, obviously. Thirty pages. And what we seem to know about Hulke is thin. He was illegitimate at a point when it attracted much social stigma, he seemed to have gone to university, he joined and left the Communist Party at some point and worked for the Unity Theatre. I wonder how easy it would be to find out which university? I guess you’d need to go around each university? Has anyone asked Terrance Dicks? I suspect such information wouldn’t exist unless there was some letters or diaries. We don’t know when he joined the Communist Party or when he left – Herbert assumes 1956, with the invasion of Hungary, but that’s just a guess. Would there be a secret services file on him? I didn’t know where the Unity Theatre was and Herbert doesn’t tell us. It turns out it was in the King’s Cross area, now under housing, and home to a significant number of actors, writers and directors over the years.

Hulke doesn’t seem to have written for the Unity Theatre but wrote for radio and TV, including the Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960) Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961) serials, early children’s sf from Sydney Newman. When he was working on an episode of The Avengers, “The Mauritius Penny” (10 November 1962), he called on the aid of an advertising copywriter he was renting a room to, Terrance Dicks, as a cowriter. Hulke wrote scripts for early Doctor Who, which weren’t used, including a historical, so it wasn’t until “The Faceless Ones” (8 April-13 May 1967) that his byline appeared on the series – a story about aliens stealing human identity. (Ok, that doesn’t seem so typical. Co-writer David Ellis had worked on Dixon of Dock Green and was about to work on Z Cars). Less than two years later, Dicks turned to Hulke to help cowrite “The War Games” (19 April-22 June 1969) as the production team had run out of usuable scripts and time. Dicks, continuing as script editor commissioned him both to write “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (31 January-14 March 1970) and help rewrite David Whittaker’s “The Ambassadors of Death” (21 March-2 May 1970). Hulke’s work is clearly some of the most interesting of the era – an era that backed itself into a narrative corner by stranding the Doctor on Earth. Each week an alien had to invade or a scientific discovery had to go wrong; the series’s centring on a Britain defending itself from attack was clearly politically very interesting.in terms of its narrative of English postimperial melancholy. As I write in Solar Flares: “At a point when Britain had a relatively low military profile – and before the resurgence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – the UNIT narratives provide Britain with a role in world affairs without anyone having to go overseas (although occasionally they get to leave the planet).” (p. 117). Hulke seems to have been sceptical of the military, which introduces a tension in the UNIT stories.

Herbert spends about a paragraph on each of the serials, little more than brief summaries, noting significant actors, and so forth, before moving on to discuss those Target novelisations. (Dicks was series editor, unofficially I believe, but was both repaying a debt and giving work to a colleague who could produce the goods.) The political subtexts are noted, but not developed. Much of the Doctor Who materials appeared on a blog as a guest post. How does Hulke’s communism play out in his sympathetic aliens and his dangerous militias?

This pamphlet feels like a precursor to further work. Is there analysis to be written of Hulke’s sf or has it been done? I would imagine there are plenty of documents in the BBC’s archives, and I don’t know what criticism there is out there already, fannish or academic. I can’t see me doing any digging in the near future, so there it is, an idea parked.

I note, however, that coming soon is a biography, by John Williams, Mac: The Life and Work of Malcolm Hulke, which may answer such queries.

Bibliography

  • Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters (London: Target, 1974) [“Doctor Who and the Silurians”]:
  • Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon (London: Target, 1974) [“Colony in Space” 10 April-15 May 1971].
  • Doctor Who and the Sea Devils (London: Target, 1974) [26 February-1 April 1972]
  • Doctor Who and the Green Death (London: Target, 1975) [“The Green Death” (19 May 1973-23 June 1973), by Robert Sloman]
  • Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (12 January to 16 February 1974)]
  • Doctor Who and the Space War (London: Allan Wingate, 1976) [“Frontier in Space” (24 February-31 March 1973)]
  • Doctor Who and the War Games (London: Target, 1979)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Faceless Ones (London: Target, 1986)
  • Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who — The Ambassadors of Death (London: Target, 1987)

Doctor Who and the Communist is available from the publisher’s website, I would guess their bookshop and Housman’s Bookshop, Caledonian Road, London near King’s Cross.