Can You Rely on Human Goodness? Research Time, 22/06/2017

A short post today. A fable from Alexander Hamilton about the right and wrong kinds of freedom. Paraphrased from Federalist #23.

So the first constitution of the United States – the confederal constitution – had a specific process for how the national government was to build its army and national defence forces.

In that process, the federal government would make requisition orders out to the individual states. Each of them would give weapons, soldiers, and money according to their needs.

The USS Constitution, built in the earliest days of the republic, at
a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where else could all of
that money come from but the American government itself?
The states would, of course, give freely and faithfully to their federal government. After all, these requests would be for the sake of national defence – the security of all American states acting in solidarity through the efforts and leadership of their federal government.

Such strong bonds of friendship across American state leaders lasted just as long as we would all expect. It took barely a decade for all the Thirteen respond to such requests with mocking laughter.

Every state was a miser. All the leaders from the Carolinas to New England – and especially Delaware – refused to give more than a few trinkets, some spare nickels trickling up from the state treasuries to the capitol.

Where did their virtue and patriotism go? Never trust a leader to be a virtuous patriot. As soon as someone hits the governor’s mansion, that treasury was only for them and their people. Certainly not those people, he’d say, talking about a fellow American. A New Yorker and a Virginian say it to each other.

If the federal government didn’t have the power to raise its own national defence, the leaders of states would starve them of it. So alienated from their fellow Americans people were in the 1780s.

Should Michigan Matter More Than the Michganders? Research Time, 21/06/2017

There are moments when you read The Federalist Papers and you see a bizarre flash into the future.

It’s as if reading the text, for an instant, merges the moment of Alexander Hamilton at the constitutional conferences in New York and Philadelphia, with a moment of Donald Trump laughing, belching in the Oval Office tweeting more and more gloats about his victory.

When Trump won, one of the things that drove non-Trumpist Americans out of their minds was the structure of the electoral college. Understandably – it’s the institution that allowed the candidate who lost the popular vote to win the election. 2016 is the second time this has happened this century so far, and we’re not even one-fifth through it.

A key message of Donald Trump's campaign was encouraging
Americans to revel in open contempt for the poor and ethnic
minorities. Trump won a narrow victory in Michigan, and the
mechanisms of the electoral college resulted in that difference of a
few thousand votes giving the weight of the entire population to him.
Here, a Flint resident carries bottled water.
We’ve all seen plenty of explanations as to how this happens. The electoral college is a form of federal vote weighting that assigns a specific value to each state in the actual institutional votes for the Presidency.

The people of the United States don’t, technically speaking, have one single national election. They have fifty national elections, one in each state. And the state elections determine which candidate that state will throw its weight behind. The electoral votes are functions of a state’s population, and it doesn’t matter if a candidate smashes it or barely ekes out a win – all the electoral votes go to that candidate.

You might be thinking, “Why in the hell do they have this kind of system?” Well, it’s because the United States almost fell apart at the moment of its birth as a country. That’s what you learn reading The Federalist Papers. I don’t think a lot of Americans know this.

The original confederal constitution of the United States vested all the non-explicit powers of government in the individual states. So the confederal government couldn’t do a damn thing. So the second US constitution was written in this moment of intense tension between federalists and all-state indépendistes.

The electoral college’s structure and rules was one of the few concessions that the original indépendistes of the United States could squeeze out of the federalists.

Hamilton argues it well. Democracy must rest a government’s institutional power ultimately in the hands of the people. A government that rests its own power in the people will be the one that inspires patriotic devotion, the sense of community that comes from a common government.

In the first US constitution, the governments that connected their powers with the people were the individual states. The federal government could only act domestically through the mediation of the states. Hamilton warned that this would result in huge inequalities of power from state to state, and erode the sense of common community that the revolution had instilled in white Americans from Maine to the Carolinas.

The electoral college was one last part of the American federal government that mediated the actions and votes of the people through the individual states as entities.

In this century so far, it’s helped exacerbate violent and resentment tensions between different states and regions of the US, as its mathematical quirks have enabled two disastrous presidents to ascend to state power.

I can easily imagine Alexander Hamilton telling the people of the United States, “I told you so.”

What’s Another Word for Getting Big? Research Time, 20/06/2017

A curious idea came to me as I was reading through some of James Madison’s Federalist Papers. If I were to think about them historically – and this is just a riff, really – I’d see them as a forerunner of the pragmatists.

I don't just mean this in the ordinary sense of the term, that they’ll adapt their thinking to changing situations and generally apply their thought to problems in immediate political and social problems. Of course, they did. But that’s not all that was going on.

Sometimes, I think the only -ism I could ever adopt as a thinker is pragmatist.* Our thinking is rooted in understanding the changeable, contingent, material world. So we strive for our thinking to be as flexible as reality. Not conform to some perfect imagined symmetry.

Just because you wrote more of the papers, that doesn't mean you have
to be the star of the show.
* I just wish academics would stop assuming that all the name means, is that I write commentary on William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.

The world is as it is, and philosophy develops different ways of thinking to deal with that. Philosophy is the craftsmanship of concepts, our mind’s tools. I see that idea in the work of Hamilton and Madison. But it’s especially at the forefront for Madison. If Hamilton is the Federalists’ political scientist and sociologist, Madison is the book’s philosopher.

Hamilton argues for his conclusions through very insightful and philosophically productive analysis of ongoing and oncoming political problems of the post-independence Thirteen Colonies.

Madison will argue for the same conclusions, but through analyzing the possibilities for the structures of communities themselves.

He attacks an argument against large-scale federal government. It has nothing to do with immediate political and military consequences. It’s that the only functional free societies in human history have been the size of small cities. So only small cities can govern themselves democratically.

Madison’s argument was that democratic possibility doesn’t depend on size, but on communication. To deliberate as a public in ancient Greece or medieval Germany and Italy, you had to show up in the same town square and talk to each other.

By the time of revolutionary North America, they’d developed the technology for detailed communication across entire continents. The same public deliberation could carry on through the first continental-scale mass media – printed newspaper and an educated society.**

** Educated among the whole people, at their time; less so among the three-fifths people.

The same media effectively carried out democratic governance in the same way. Election machinery and fast channels of communication between a town and a capital city connected South Carolina to New York, Vermont, and Maryland within a few days.

The mechanisms for representatives to reach a general assembly and communicate with the people for whom they were responsible in government could reach longer than the walk down the road. Detailed communication across continents was possible by the American Revolution.

You could create a public of millions with trains and the postal service. What’s important isn’t size, but the speed and density of communication. Find the difference that makes the difference. You may need new ideas to do it – a butcher can always make a better knife. That’s philosophy.

A Metaphor That Will Devour Your World, Doctor Who: Eaters of Light, Reviews, 19/06/2017

“Eaters of Light” is a very old-fashioned Doctor Who story, but it’s also perfectly in tune with the rebellious tone and message Doctor Who is expressing in 2017. Several stories this season have staked out what Doctor Who can be in the Britain of Brexit nationalism and cultural delusion. “Eaters of Light” is another one.

The Doctor’s Harsh Words for Brexit Nation

The British nationalism of Brexit is an ideology that’s trying to resurrect the spirit of the British Empire, a time when Britain as a country needed no partners, no friends. Brexit ideology is the image of Britain as the dominant power in the world.

Quite simply, the Doctor does not have time for any of your shit.
That’s why the ideology rejects the European Union – for all that its execution remains flawed, the core promise of the EU is that it’s a confederation of partners who are stronger together than they ever could be separately or at war.

Brexit nationalism remembers an alternative arrangement – when Britain was independent of all such confederations, and wanted war because Britain would conquer.

Nigel Farage’s vision has two elements: domination and racism. Reject the European Union because Britain’s true greatness lies not in becoming one partner among ostensible equals, but in dominating all rivals. Reject a multicultural society because those who aren’t ethnically and culturally traditional British are no equals, but slaves.

The victory of Brexit was a reactionary eruption of this demented vision – a demand to return to the patriotism of the empire, of conquerors.

We’ve seen several reactions Doctor Who has had to this vision of Britain – all variations on “NO!”

Doctor Who could never have embraced this kind of ideology without falling apart. It would be a bigger ethical crisis for the show than the collapse of the Doctor’s character in the metafictional suicide of 1985.

One flaw of the retro nature of Rona Munro's script was that the
supporting cast didn't get much development in their dialogue that
wasn't directly related to the theme of the story. Which was fine,
since the theme was brilliant. But I found Rebecca Benson's Kar
had the best performance in relatively thin material.
Doctor Who was designed as a take on the Victorian character trope of the travelling scientist-adventurer in a post-empire world. The Doctor explores the ethic of the imperial scientist-adventurer who rejects empire. So of course Doctor Who could only ever stand against Brexit ideology.

Thieves and Killers, Eaters of Light

Several stories this season have attacked different expressions of Brexit ideology. “Thin Ice” depicted the Victorian-era version of Nigel Farage for exactly the kind of petty, pathetic, small-minded, racist twit he is.

“Oxygen” shows how the world is perverted into a horror-show of exploitation, where people are treated as disposable machinery in the name of profit. A society whose core values are those of remorseless, pitiless, rapacious libertarian capitalism where everything can be for sale, even the air we breathe. This society is the monster whose death the Doctor sets in motion.

The flawed yet terribly ambitious Monks Trilogy carries among its many dense philosophical themes a running resistance to apparently invincible empire. Each episode features an act of resistance and hope that eventually forces that empire to crumble.

“Empress of Mars” is probably the biggest middle finger to the Faragean romanticizing of brutality and theft. It’s not a subtle story. The Victorian English soldiers that Brexit ideology considers the height of British nobility are petty thieves and chauvinist murderers.

Romans are romanticized as the ultimate warriors, ever since the
original histories of their empire. Livy was as much a propagandist
for his country as its chronicler. But when the chips are seriously
down and your enemy is a hungry killing machine from another
dimension whose very material nature is a destructive cancer on
your own universe, they're a bit in over their heads.
The only one among the major soldier characters with any honour or ethics is the deserter. I mean, naturally. This is Doctor Who – anyone who deserts from a brutal conquering army bent on looting the world is a hero.

Which brings us to “Eaters of Light,” which is simultaneously straightforward in its rejection of Brexit nationalist ideology and a little more complex.

Impotent Empires

This week’s story is straightforward, though a warning of

SPOILERS!! 

is needed. Phil Sandifer’s review already described how the structure of the story was so straightforward, it was straight out of the classic series. Rona Munro, who wrote the last story of the classic series “Survival,” turned in a very simple Doctor Who story. Its narrative wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1970s.

The TARDIS team gets split up and meets the two sides of a terrible conflict. Bill meets the last teenage soldiers of the Roman legion while the Doctor and Nardole meet the child and teenage survivors of the area’s Pictish people. When they reunite, they bring the two sides together to fight a greater evil. The monster receives no greater detail than its monstrousness, its concept as a light-eater.

The episode's ending, with Pict and Roman warriors and shamans
locked together in a time-out-of-joint pocket battling eternally for
the safety of our reality, reminded me a lot of the end of the classic
Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor," but much more hopeful.
The Romans of 2000 years ago are, along with the British of 150 years ago, the most legendary empires of Europe. Their armies and conquests are remembered fondly in the current age. Mussolini’s nationalism regarded imperial Rome in much the same way Farage’s remembers Victorian Britain.

But Kar herself, the young Pict shaman, describes what they were in their own times. Armies of mass murderers, thieves, looters, not warriors but despoilers. The reason the few teenagers are left in the Roman legion is because the Light Eater monster killed them all. As for the adult Picts, the Romans killed all of them.

The episode itself demonstrates the pathetic nature of this kind of imperialist killing. You wouldn’t think that we’d have to demonstrate how horrible imperialist killing is, but that’s Brexit ideology for you, and it’s a serious danger.

Peace Conquers All

Simply demonstrating the inherent wrongness of invading a country, massacring its people, and looting its wealth isn’t enough, however. The problem is one of intuitions, the kind of ethical thinking to which you’re accustomed.

I can very easily say that invading a country, massacring its people, and looting their wealth is a terrible thing, because that is what I believe. And I can argue for its rightness using appeals to historical evidence and philosophical principle. History provides my cases to analyze, and philosophy provides my principles and the means to justify them.

The last scene (whether written by Munro herself or Steven Moffat,
credit to them both anyway) is a vast improvement on Toby
Whithouse's brick-headed attempt to show the Master's ethical
transformation. "Eaters of Light" is bold and sophisticated
enough to show us the deeply erotic aspects of this season's arc
of the Master's relationship with the Doctor as the means to her
ethical change. It's territory that Doctor Who has never really
explored (officially, anyway). Like I said last time, I'm
disappointed that it turned out to be a straight pairing, as is
everyone else who wrote a little Davison Doctor / Ainley
Master slash-fic in our day. But that's especially so for this
episode, which made such a touching moment of queer
conversation when Bill got to know her Roman friends.
The problem is that a rabid imperialist nationalist can do the same. They believe that the glory of a people is in dominating, conquering, brutalizing, and looting them. They use cases from history and philosophical analysis to determine and justify their principles too. What can break the deadlock?

“Eaters of Light” provides an answer, one similar in a fashion to that of “Empress of Mars” last week. They prove that domination through violence is ultimately a fool’s game, because you can never win those contests forever. You might believe that you can, as Catchlove did last week and the most deranged Farageans do most every day.

But if the British Empire had lasted long enough (or made it to Mars), they’d have eventually discovered some alien civilization with far superior technology who would have made short work of their glory. The same goes for Rome – the all-consuming army is destroyed by a locust from another dimension.

What can actually ensure the continuity of your civilization and culture through such a challenge is peace. Last week, we saw a human who’d rejected empire making peace with Martians. This weekend, we saw the remnants of conquerors joining with the remnants of the conquered to defeat a force that threatened their whole world.

That's the message of Doctor Who for those who worship empire. Not only are our values of peace and friendship better ethically, they’re better for our very survival.
• • •
My reviews on this season of Doctor Who so far. Unranked, at least for now.
The Pilot / The Girl with The Star in Her Eye
Smile
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
Oxygen
Extremis
The Pyramid at the End of the World (1)
The Pyramid at the End of the World (2)
The Lie of the Land
The Monks Trilogy
Empress of Mars

Grinding the Great Plains in the Teeth of Tank Treads, Research Time, 16/06/2017

The American conquest of North America was more than just a war. The United States is the oldest democracy still functioning. Many times, it’s merely creaked along.

Civil wars, assassinations, uprisings of political violence. Don’t forget the festering wounds of the country’s birth defects – the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, then Klan terrorism, Jim Crow, then the War on Drugs.

As the United States government spread out from the original Thirteen Colonies to conquer French, Spanish, and Indigenous territory all the way to the Pacific Coast, the armies and militias carried the name of the USA. But the government came after the conquest.

A mass grave from the killing of hundreds of Lakota warriors and
civilians at Wounded Knee in what is now South Dakota.
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist #8, describes how the conquest of the rest of the American continent would require war machines. It would not be accomplished through the authoritative violence of the state.

They could conquer the American west only through the high-speed brute force of the war machines – nomadic forces spreading at their own will across the continent’s territory. Only the British and Iroquois were able to hold them off. Other than that, these militias and armies flashed across the continent in wave after wave.

The violence that settled the American West was a force that needed no sanction but its own acts. Nothing enfolds or controls this violence – it’s a pure desire that goes where it will, destroying all that it encounters.

This is the violence of Judge Holden. But where Cormac McCarthy read the conquest as a religious experience – the reign of satan in a world that’s become a continent-wide forest fire – an attentive ontologist sees only the fire itself.

There was no real agency directing the expansion. Yes, there were laws and declarations from Washington, territorial and city governments appeared. But the genocidal violence was autonomous. Violence was the agent, and people were the expression of violence.

We’re accustomed to thinking of forces and processes the other way around. But the war machine of American conquest is a force that becomes the space itself. Its violence moves as space emptying itself of all existing structures of humanity.

Tribes, existing empires, peoples, and people all pushed farther and farther until the sheer weight of intensifying violence grinds all these subjects into particles indistinguishable from the plains.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called the war machine the creation of a nomad space. It’s an effective name, but it does an injustice to nomadic peoples themselves, who’ve too often been crushed by such machines. Just ask a Bedouin.

American people too often depict their old west with too much virtue.
No, what I’m riffing on here is the “smooth space that gnaws, and tends to grow, in all directions . . . they themselves make them grow . . . make the desert no less than they are made by it . . . The variability, the polyvocality of directions, is an essential feature of smooth spaces of the rhizome type, and it alters their cartography.” These are words from A Thousand Plateaus.

The war machine is space and territory itself become violence. A militia reconstitutes land itself as a bloodbath, soaking the soil until the beaches and cliffs of the Pacific coast. The only limit to expansion was the end of land itself. The hungry consumption of violence grows the territory that it razes and fragments into particles.

This was the American expansion west from the Thirteen Colonies, the story of how the United States got its continent-sized shape.
• • •
Alexander Hamilton wrote about the danger that the coming conquest of the American west posed the people of the United States. If, in 1789, the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies decided to split the union into multiple states and confederacies, Hamilton said it would tear the American people apart.

Yeah, like I said, there’d be the internecine wars over territory as the different North American countries expanded west. But it wouldn’t be the same as the conflicts among the different South American states. They mostly had border wars, wars over small territorial possessions, wars of independence, or civil wars.

No, the United States’ expansion from 1810 to the start of its civil war was not the imposition of order. It was the wholesale cleansing of a continent’s territory through the annihilation of all societies, organizations, and cultures but that which extended from the Thirteen Colonies.

The state came later, with its sheen of law. The myth was that the USA’s expansion brought the law to a lawless land. The land was only lawless because they cleared away all the old laws first.

Eyes Over the Table, Composing, 15/06/2017

I didn’t mean to go three days without posting, but it happened. Its unfortunate, because this is the first time in a while* that I’m fairly well ahead of my blogging in my reading.

* Don’t fucking jinx it, Riggio.

There’d be times when I’m so busy scrounging work that I’m reaching for a spare paragraph of philosophy or anything at all to read that I’m wondering what to write at the end of the day. Now sometimes, I come home too tired to write, or because I’ve been working on writing projects from clients, and directing a documentary.

Have I not mentioned that yet? I’m not even sure that I have before.

The film is called Around One Table, a story of a very straightforward idea – that dinner brings us together. At first, the idea was to make a short documentary about an organization called Syrian Welcome Dinners.

This film project has a lot of fringe benefits.
They’re a volunteer-run organization that connects newcomer families from different parts of Syria with Canadian families who are interested to get to know people from the region, and are open to helping them build their personal and professional networks in their new city.

They all meet and get to know each other over dinner. Literally, the already-Canadians invite the whole family of the new-Canadians for a meal. Our documentary will film interviews with some of the participating Canadians and the participating Syrians.

We’ll talk with the Canadians as they prepare their meals. What’s your history with this dish? Do you have any good memories associated with this meal? What are your expectations about meeting these folks? What do you want to talk about with them? Why are you taking part in this program in the first place?

Similar conversations with members of the Syrian families in the days before the dinner. What’s your story of coming to Canada? What do you remember about your life before coming here? Do you have other family members in Canada? Elsewhere in the world? In Syria?

What do you like about Canada? What have you learned about this city already? What sticks out to you? What do you expect of the welcome dinner? What do you think of a meeting program like this? Why did you sign up for this?

We’re catching up with Syrians who’ve already gone through the program as they cook an Iftar meal to bring to their former hosts.

Questions like this can tell you plenty about a lot of the joy and tragedy in life. I’m pretty sure we'll have enough for a feature-length.

The Pathetic Impotence of Empire, Doctor Who: Empress of Mars, Reviews, 12/06/2017

"Empress of Mars" is Mark Gatiss’ swan song to Doctor Who, and another explicit contribution to a vision of Doctor Who for the Brexit era.

Iraxxa is one of Mark Gatiss' best characters, and I'd love to see the
show engage her again. I've seen very few clues emerging so far
about the style and priorities of the Chris Chibnall era, so I'm
interested in seeing what they'd do with the Ice Warrior
matriarch.
A Man of Tradition

Gatiss was literally the second writer whose script appeared since the revival back in the Christopher Eccleston year. “The Unquiet Dead” was one of Gatiss’ best scripts, and I’d put “Empress of Mars” in the same category.

He’ll probably leave Doctor Who television with Steven Moffat, and the two of them – lifelong friends and creative partners – have had a wonderful run on the show of a decade and a half. Gatiss, however, always had a reputation as the lesser half of that pair.

In all fairness, aesthetically that’s the case. Moffat has always been able to deliver trippy concepts, complex narratives, and detailed story arcs. Gatiss can put a solid script together, though some of them feature some unfortunate holes and problematic implications.

If Gatiss’ work has one running flaw, it’s that he’s an inescapable traditionalist. His stories are all fairly simple. There are evil aliens of some kind, and the supporting cast usually has an engaging story.

It isn’t always the existential rejuvenation of Charles Dickens, the family drama of “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Night Terrors,” or the metafictional mythmaking of “Robot of Sherwood,”* but there’s always some idea beyond the base under siege.

Mark Gatiss is often called a traditionalist Doctor Who writer. But
while his style typically sticks with the creepiness and camp that
dominated the show's styles in the 1970s, many of his stories
actually turn the traditional story forms of classical Doctor Who
on their heads. Like in "Empress of Mars," where the humans are
the invaders of a Martian base, and they're more dangers to
themselves than the Ice Warriors.
* Which wasn’t really all that successful, and is a top candidate for Gatiss’ lowest-ranking story.

Because Gatiss stories are fundamentally bases under siege – locations or worlds that are disrupted by alien invasions. The Gelth, the Wire, the Daleks, the Tenza child, the Sweetville community, the Ice Warriors, the robots, and the sleep creatures all invade Victorian London, 1950s London, the council estate, Victorian Yorkshire, a Russian submarine, the metafictional Sherwood Forest, and the Le Verrier space station.

The TARDIS crew with their local allies defend the invaded space, or else figure out how the invaders and invaded can make peace. Gatiss doesn’t religiously follow the old base-under-siege format.

His more complex character dynamics put him above that tired format, for one. As well, the fact that some siege conflicts can be settled peacefully is another form of progress over the traditional. “Sleep No More” was probably his most ambitious work, using the camera itself as a deceptive narrative device. That story was his biggest creative leap.

Paint Mars Pink

“Empress of Mars” isn’t such a leap. It’s reactive, but in a good way. This is an explicitly anti-imperialist political story that subverts its own traditionalism. It’s a base under siege, but the base is the Martian cryogenic complex, and the invaders are Victorian English soldiers.

Catchlove is a caricature, but he's a sadly accurate one. He's exactly
the kind of person who the most blindly nationalist Brexiteer would
hope a Britain free from the constraints of the European Union's
prissy, pansy, peacenik ideology will grow among its next
generation.
The soldiers have explicitly enslaved the Ice Warrior they found shipwrecked on Earth. They even named him Man Friday, after the Pacific Islander Robinson Crusoe enslaves. The characters admit it – their own reference to Robinson Crusoe parallels Bill’s references to her contemporary television serials and movies.

It portrays the soldiers as ordinary British people, just like Bill. But their attitudes show the violence and rage that was ordinary in British society at the time. They aren’t on Mars to explore it, but to conquer it, rob it of its mineral wealth, and subjugate its inhabitants. Just like they did throughout India, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

The humans are the invaders, but their invasion is incompetent. They’ve been easily manipulated by Friday’s promises of precious gems on Mars. Their apparent shipwreck was entirely intentional, since the English camp was so close to the Empress’ cryo chamber.

The most the English crew could manage for mining equipment was a repurposed laser cannon. When the fighting starts, their guns are pathetically ineffective. These are the most incompetent invaders in years of Doctor Who.

Yet they’re poster boys for British greatness. The red uniforms, aggressive courage, and will to conquer is the worshipped image of the Brexit crew’s campaign to Make Britain Great Again!.

A political persona as ridiculous as
this idiot was never supposed to win.
Blinded by Dreams

It isn’t a stretch to identify the same chauvinist nationalism in the leaders of Britain’s Brexit movement as in those pathetic soldiers. The motivating sentiment of Brexit is to return to an era when Britain on its own was powerful enough to conquer the world. And in the case of “Empress of Mars,” beyond.

Except Britain isn’t powerful enough to conquer the world beyond Earth. It never was. Even in this sci-fi scenario where they make it to Mars, they fail miserably. Their weapons are no match for the Ice Warriors’ sonic guns, and they seem incapable of conceiving of any tactic but standing in a line and firing their useless rifles.

They’re deluded into thinking that this millennia-old starfaring civilization is simply a bunch of walking crocodiles. We’re British! they say. We can conquer anything! British conquer and destroy!

The rhetoric of Brexit had more than one parallel to these toy soldiers. Boris Johnson’s boisterous strutting national pride, Michael Gove’s supremely dorky sense of self-superiority, Andrea Leadsom’s quaint social conservatism – they were all deluding themselves that Britain could be powerful enough to conquer Earth again if they just cut their ties to these pansy democratic institutions.

Nigel Farage is the worst of them all, an unreconstructed racist nationalist who’s offended by the mere presence of Muslims and Poles on pure, white English shores. “Empress of Mars” is a slap in all their faces – a story that depicts blatantly what an idiotic bumble chauvinist nationalism really is.

The only reason Britain was able to conquer the world was because of the contingent fact that they actually were, for the most part, technologically superior to many of their enemies. They never faced down Iraxxa.

The last shot of "Empress of Mars" is a brief moment of what seems to
be a slow-brewing sexual tension between the Doctor and the Master.
It's a much more nuanced way to handle the Master's ethical reform
than Toby Whithouse's pathetic Frank Miller retreads. My only
regret is that, by the time Doctor Who started making the Doctor-
Master sexual tension explicit and obvious, they were a straight
pairing.
Nothing about empire is inherently great – it’s simply delusions on top of delusions.

More Than Monsters, True Alien Worlds

“Empress of Mars” also does a lot to make the Ice Warriors a unique fictional people. He got this started a little bit with his nuanced character of Grand Marshal Skaldak. But he gets the most done here.

In their original appearances during the Troughton era, the Ice Warriors were generic evil aliens invading a series of bases as part of evil schemes to conquer to Earth. But the Pertwee years saw the creatures gain some depth and complexity.

By the Peladon stories of 1972 and 1974, their characters had motivations just as complex as the others. Some were uncertain allies with their own priorities in a complicated political backdrop, and some were manipulative villains. Hulking monsters they weren’t.

The Big Finish audios, for the most part, weren’t too kind to the Ice Warriors. They basically just made them into hissing green Klingons.

In this short story, Gatiss adds a remarkable amount of nuance to Ice Warrior culture. For one thing, matriarchal values are central to their society. Iraxxa puts special weight on Bill’s assessment of the Mars-Britain standoff when she makes her decision – as a woman, Bill’s is a calm voice amid the shouts of strutting men.

Do these guys seriously think their rifles can stand up to the sonic
weaponry of Ice Warriors? Also, "Empress of Mars" was the first
Doctor Who story that rendered the Ice Warriors' sonic weaponry
in contemporary visual effects. It looked fantastic.
The perspective of a woman is that of careful thought – sanity in a world of madness, shouting, and rage. A woman is wise and noble, well-suited for leadership and the responsibility to make high-stakes decisions.

The most important cultural development for “Empress of Mars” comes through Iraxxa’s contrast to the most violent of the British soldiers. Ice Warriors are creatures of war, battle, and honour. But they aren’t imperialists. Iraxxa’s values revolve around solidarity and courage, not conquest and theft.

The British are, for the most part, cruel egotists. Jackdaw is a petty thief, getting himself killed over stealing ornamental jewels from Iraxxa’s cryogenic chamber. Catchlove is the most obvious example of what the story holds in contempt. He embodies all the racism, arrogance, aggression, rage, and violence that makes him wretched filth.

The nobility of Iraxxa, Friday, Bill, and Godsacre are a contrast to that petty arrogance and cruelty. What better role models could we have?
• • •
Here are my previous reviews of Peter Capaldi's last season of Doctor Who. I won't do a formal ranking until the end of the season, after "The Doctor Falls" broadcasts and I can look into the season as a whole.

The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye
Smile
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
Oxygen
Extremis
The Pyramid at the End of the World (1)
The Pyramid at the End of the World (2)
The Lie of the Land (Screw you, Whithouse)
The Monks Trilogy

“Before Man Was, War Waited For Him,” Jamming, 09/06/2017

Here's an odd convergence as I thought about a passage in The Federalist Papers. I didn’t realize its implications in the moment I first read it, but thinking on it in my notebook today, it’s there. A glimpse of terror.

The Federalist Papers make a remarkably optimistic document. It would have to be. These essays were designed to sway popular opinion, so had to be appealing. And they had to sway popular opinion regarding one of the heaviest concerns ever facing the people of the United States – they had to choose what their country would be.

So you don’t throw in a stark manifestation of horror intentionally. This scream appeared by accident. At the time, they probably wouldn’t even have seen it as a scream. It would have been a call to adventure.

The quote from the title is from Cormac McCarthy's
Blood Meridian. It was written as a dark and bloody
myth of America's creation in the late stages of its
western conquest. A story of the best time for an
otherworldly evil to manifest on Earth was during
the American genocide of its indigenous people.
When the scalp was a form of currency.
Americans don’t like to think of themselves as an empire. I feel pretty safe saying this. Even with their military bases flung all over the world supporting countless international alliances,* American corporations and business leaders still some of the most powerful in the world, and having written the very rules of global financial institutions, no American would say their country is an empire.

* So many that even the President can’t even keep track of who’s a friend or an enemy.

By some technical definitions, they’re right. Americans didn’t conquer every country where they stuck a military base. But I’m not thinking about the empire around the world.

See, in Federalist #7, Alexander Hamilton talks about another reason why the United States will be better off unified under a federal government. Now, he talks about the fascinating philosophical ideas in other essays.

His conception of patriotism as the fundamental virtue for a peaceful society is fascinating. It puts Hamilton squarely in the tradition of Machiavellian republicans – the materialist democrats. But there are also a lot of frank practical discussions about the coming challenges Americans faced at that moment in history.**

** No, of course it wouldn’t be slavery. Hamilton may have been enlightened in many ways, but he still had no problem with slavery.

This challenge was looking west. It was the challenge of building an American empire. Hamilton also foresaw several separate American nations and confederacies sparking into constant war on each other. John Jay spoke in broad historical strokes about how all peoples slip into war with each other eventually.

Hamilton had a very specific war in mind. If the USA split into four or five different countries and peoples, they’d face a massive war of competition over each other’s imperialist expansion. Not war directly on each other, but war for control of the territory of the American west and north.

Canada has its malformed romantic memory of the War of 1812, but for Americans at the time, it was just one part of a massive, decades-long program of empire building. From 1783 to the 1840s, the United States government led a massive push of military forces and armed settlers west of the 1763 Proclamation Line all the way to the Pacific.

America, land of those brave enough to force thousands of people on
brutal death marches across 400 miles.
The United States failed to conquer England’s northern colony of Upper Canada, but they did a much better job with the chunks of New France that still existed south of the Great Lakes, and with New Spain.

Of course, the worst would happen to the Indigenous peoples. US policy during its westward expansion was the open genocide of Indigenous peoples – constant raids and massacres, disease inflicted on them to decimate their population, forced starvation on reserve land.

Probably the most intense single event of America’s Indigenous Holocaust was the Trail of Tears. It’s a lilting, poetic name for a brutal death march of hundreds of thousands of people from the Carolinas halfway across the fucking continent to what’s now Oklahoma.

Hamilton urged unity for the 13 American states because otherwise, violence might break out during this continental conquest. The only violence that was a problem for him was the violence among countries and peoples who could have come together as the United States.

What about the rest – British, French, Spanish, black slaves, indigenous sub-humans? Violence against them would bring triumph, the triumph of American empire.

Alexander Hamilton knew a few things about how to topple empires. He knew what kept an empire strong, and what made it vulnerable. Most importantly, he new that the only empire that could ever last was a monopoly.

Dank Enough for the Dreamers, Research Time, 08/06/2017

You read John Jay and you feel all the brutality of Henry Kissinger. In a few pages, he describes a world of war. Not constant war, not a world without any peace at all.

Jay’s world is of inevitable war – the knowledge that whatever peace and community exists between peoples at some time, corruption will erode that brotherhood like a swift river along clay banks. Best to make yourself one people, to avoid that old killing hatred.

Since I’ve already painted Alexander Hamilton as the pragmatic idealist of the group, you might think that he gives the uplifting account of national unity. It’s true – Hamilton’s vision of patriotism is inspiring.

I saw some prideful, self-aggrandizing, embarrassing patriotism during
the Harper years here in Canada. I'm thinking particularly of his
tasteless celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
The government arranged a spectacle of imperialist military history,
basking in the glory of Canada as the faithful northern diamond
of the British Empire. Gag me.
It’s also rooted in a vision of humanity that will tear each other apart for the sake of ego and fleeting glory, musket bullets turning to metal teeth devouring the flesh of our brothers.*

* I listened to Bob Dylan’s strangely haunting, fragmentary vernacular poem of a Nobel acceptance lecture the other day. I feel like throwing down a few naturalistic metaphors. It’s the Herman Melville in me.

Yes, says Hamilton, commercial trade and the multicultural fermentation that goes with it builds an impressive brotherhood among peoples. But those long relationships ultimately can’t stop war and hatred arising. It’s always possible for long-loving brothers to throw punches and draw blood.

A collection of neighbours becomes a people when they develop a shared concept of patriotic solidarity, and devote themselves, at least a little, to its force. That solidarity among a community is the productive kind of patriotism.

Patriotism is the virtue that grows out of that feeling of solidarity in each individual. That virtue in turn makes community solidarity possible, and encourages its growth. But such virtuous patriotism can become corrupt when solidarity turns to pride.

A prideful soul aggrandizes itself. A prideful man seeks the honour and glory of demonstrating his superiority over others. A prideful people, says Hamilton, seeks the same. The corruption of patriotism is a raging desire throughout a people to aggrandize themselves – to demonstrate their greatness by subjugating and humiliating others.

The patriotism of solidarity consolidates communities and individuals into a people. One of the essential beliefs such a virtue of patriotism generates is the notion that all of our countryfolk rise and fall together.

The patriotism of pride corrupts that solidarity through the belief that our rise requires others’ fall.

The Most Dank Realism of the 1780s, Research Time, 07/06/2017

Back to the dawn of the United States of America. What a time to have been alive, when you could literally vote on the nature of your own nation. Not a question of government, governance, or who sits in what seat.

I mean, when you could vote on whether the Supreme Court would come into existence. Whether the federal government would have a Presidential office, or if you’d just have the houses of Congress. How many houses of Congress would there be?

Can you imagine how in the sweet air of hell’s nuclear fusion fires a debate like this would be conducted in our media ecology today?

In the media environment of the 1780s, we got a series of philosophical meditations on the powers of federal government institutions from three of the leading statesmen of the day.

Because I don't really feel like posting a generic painting reproduction
of John Jay, I'm going with a far superior Jay.
Everybody forgets about John Jay. But that’s for good reason. Out of 85 separate essays in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote 51, James Madison wrote 29. The other five were by John Jay.

I was suitably underwhelmed by the philosophy in Jay’s writing. So his illness during the essays’ writing period didn’t result in our missing much. But there were some interesting ideas in the few essays he did write.

The early Federalist Papers were broad-focussed appeals to the unique nature of America, a people with incredible potential. Hamilton wrote appeals to the people of the United States not to collapse into disunity, to stay together in all their diversity from the nations of Vermont to the Carolinas.

Because yeah, they were nations back then. Nations at least as much as the United States at the time.

Jay’s writing, meanwhile, reminds us that there are always harsh martial facts alongside every profound, idealistic act of devotion. The unity of the American colonies is essential, he writes, because without uniting under a single federal government, they’d inevitably fall into constant and violent conflict.

Yes, we know what happened about 80 years later, but hang on. After all, I’m far from the only one talking about the long, deep scars of the American experiment. Even the ones you wouldn’t expect. I’m certainly not the most prominent Canadian doing it.

Jay describes how the American polity could separate into several different countries. At the moment, they were flush with fellow feeling from Georgia to Connecticut. The afterglow of winning, at such traumatizing costs, the revolutionary war from English control was still hot.

Jay knew from the history of Europe that war would inevitably follow any kind of separate national identity. The Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War – all of these conflicts had shaped the European continent and their North American colonies. It’s how New France became British. Within a few years of American unification, the Europeans would be at war again.

So separating the American colonies – despite the patriotism of the revolution, the common history, culture, and language – would bring them into conflict. Human nature brings conflict among peoples who are alien to each other.

Jay didn’t want that conflict to engulf the American peoples. So he advocated that there be only the American people. One government, one set of institutions to bring them all together. Only the authority of a single state and the cultural unity of a single institutional polity can stop humans from falling into war.

So you build one state.

Truth In Fidelity, Doctor Who: The Monks Trilogy, Reviews, 06/06/2017

Yesterday, I introduced my latest take on why Toby Whithouse is a terrible writer. I think if offers some useful instruction in how to avoid being a shitty writer yourself. Because as soon as you permanently avoid being shitty, you start being good.

Today, I’m getting into the genuinely interesting ideas of the Monks Trilogy. In the light of yesterday’s post, I’ll also get into why and how Toby Whithouse fucks the Monks Trilogy up. Not irreparably, but it’ll require a serious redemptive reading to find the value in it.

The Monks Trilogy is a story of meditations through science-fiction on
the power of truth, lies, and devotion. The most arresting image in its
last episode, "The Lie of the Land" is the Doctor in a spartan
chamber editing, revising, and rejecting countless drafts of reality
for his next propaganda broadcast.
This is my first pass at that redemption. There will definitely be

SPOILERS!!

No Real History Frozen in Time

Let’s unravel this arc. Get suitably epic and conceptual, because that’s the level on which the Monks Trilogy’s theme unfolds. In this, you can actually see how high-concept a villain the Monks truly are, so much so that I think Moffat pushed the limits of Doctor Who yet again.

The Monks Trilogy reveals three visions of truth. There’s the truth of the necronomiconic book Veritas. It reveals that the entire world is a malevolent simulation. You’re an inadequate copy of a real world, ontologically unable to express the real potential for random movement.

That’s what the ordered numbers mean: You’re not just a clone, you’re an inadequate copy. The real you could speak random numbers, as could any real duplicate of you. But we all are iterations. There’s no real difference in the world of The Veritas. Only a deterministic simulation, so all you can do is what you’re programmed to do.

There is no originality, only the initial conditions and the limits of the simulation’s power.

In “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” the Monks flaunt their power to see many possible futures. But those aren’t real timelines. Those are simulations. That’s what I meant last week when I called the Monks fake Time Lords.

The Monks are, in a way, ghostly con-men. All their technology and
power is based on the manipulation of lies – propaganda, false
memories, and simulations. So naturally, they constantly
associate themselves with truth and blast in the loudest possible
voice that their voice is the truth. The only truth that matters.
The Time Lords are the genuine article because when they observe the possibilities of history’s development, they observe real, ongoing history. They aren’t observing parallel universes, because in Doctor Who, parallel universes are just that. They aren’t produced by time travellers changing history. They’re just around.

No, in Doctor Who, there is only one history, and time travellers are always changing it. Well, everyone and everything is always changing history. Time travellers just do it in more complicated ways, which can blow holes in history if they aren’t careful. History is the real process of material existence.

So the Monks claim to know history. But they never actually examine real history, only deterministic simulations of history.

Our leads discover in “Extremis” an existential truth: They are not living organisms, but flickers of energy in one of those threads. One of those flickers sends a message to the Doctor, starting “Pyramids.”

Veritas in Extremis

The second vision of truth is a straightforward kind. The truth of authority. It’s the truth that the cops, oligarchs, kings, and raging alcoholic dads reveal. It’s a truth about your immediate future – You will do as I say!

To get people to do as they say in “The Lie of the Land,” the Monks invent a whole history that humanity generally remembers. They use their telepathic technology to rewrite everyone’s memory of their own and humanity’s history.

A key question for those of us in the wider Eruditorum community
is what Doctor Who can be in the context of the Trump era.
Sarah Dollard's "Thin Ice" offered one vision, and the underlying
ideas of Steven Moffat's Monks Trilogy is another. The two can
go together quite well.
But the Monks always have to keep forcing this history into humanity’s heads. They use the Doctor’s broadcasts, they use their own signals. They use the force of their security squads, labour camps, and secret police. The truth of authority is that you will believe what we tell you to believe, and the truth is what we say is true.

“The Lie of the Land” is about fighting that truth. The Doctor, Bill, Nardole, and the faceless rebel gang straight out of a Terry Nation story aren’t just fighting to reveal another truth. They’re out to destroy the power that the Monks’ truth has over people.

That’s another message of what Doctor Who for the Brexit/Trump era should be. We aren’t in some era of post-truth – we’re in an era where the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful democracies lie to us and order us to believe their lies. The answer isn’t to reveal truths – it’s to break their power to force our belief.

The third kind of truth is ethical truth. The truth of an action that breaks power. In “Extremis,” the Doctor knew the Master would be redeemable if she were to think of anything good about herself or do any good thing without reward of any kind. Here is the moment of truth – veritas in extremis.

She found that potential in herself, in her feelings of friendship for the Doctor. That was enough to save her, and begin the long, strange process of rehabilitating a canonical villain.

“Pyramid” ended with an ethical truth too. Bill submits to the Monks to save the Doctor’s life, as an act of friendship. Just as the Master’s was. So the role of “The Lie of the Land” was to find the ethical truth that would defeat the monks. What friendship would redeem the Earth?

I think what most annoyed me in this episode about Whithouse's
stupendously boring ideas was how he treated the Master. Her
redemption requires the most subtle writing imaginable. Her
remorse is literally the remorse of a deranged god whose killing
sprees have wiped whole civilizations from the heavens. Yet he
writes her utterly dull dialogue about "remembering so many
names" of people she's killed. The Master isn't a tinpot warlord,
she's a cackling destroyer of worlds.
To Be Faithful to a Memory

The Monks are never able to overwrite time, any more than they could manipulate real history. They’re grotesque con-men, talking up their powers to be more than they truly are. Their possible futures were simulations. Their overwritten history is a set of false historical memories broadcast into every living human.

The fundamental lie of the Monks is a memory – the memory of the Monks living side by side with humanity throughout its history. They demand – through their security state and concentration camps – that you’re faithful to this memory. You must define your very identity on their terms, as a submissive child of the Monks.

The ultimate crime on the Monks’ Earth is breaking fidelity to this memory – to declare that the Monks have not, in fact, always been here. This breaking of faith is important, but its power is limited. Only one person screaming that everything we all accept as true is actually a lie is easily shut up.

We lock them away as easily as people in tinfoil hats screaming anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Some of those people work in the White House.

To shout the truth is not the same as fidelity to it. Shouting only disavows one common sense truth as the lie that it is. It’s only your own disavowal. To genuinely overcome that lie, you need a truth of greater power to replace it.

That’s why the Doctor’s attempt to hijack the central Monk projecting the lying memory of Earth’s false history fails. He’s just throwing his memories of what’s actually happened to Earth into the memory stream. He isn’t faithful to any one of those memories, he isn’t committed to them in any way that defines his personality or identity.

Pearl Mackie's intensity as an actress just barely saves one of
Whithouse's most pathetic failures of unoriginal dialogue from
being totally unwatchable.
Bill finds one memory to redeem the world from the Monks’ lies – the memory of her mother.

This, however, is also a lie. Bill never knew her mother, which is why she’s never able to have a real conversation with her in any of her imagined morning chats. Bill’s imagined mother, at the beginning of the episode, sits silently as a photograph and listens.

Because that's all Bill has of her mother – photographs. And she didn’t even have those until the Doctor arranged their existence in the first episode of the season. No matter how Bill’s mother actually lived, Bill’s own memory of her is a lie.

Yet it’s effective in overwriting the Monks’ false history because it’s a lie. Their own massive, intricately designed lie of a false history has a reference point to every real event in human history. But it has no link to Bill’s own false memory of her mother. The Monks could only edit themselves into truths, not lies.

A Philosophical Story Arc

So the complex symmetries of the Monks trilogy fall into place. In a way, it’s the most intricate abstract narrative Moffat has ever woven into Doctor Who.

An abstract narrative is a story woven into a far-flying anthology whose nature and shape only makes sense when it’s finished. A beautiful sculpture running underneath an otherwise chronological sequence of stories.

River Song’s life was the most intricate and complicated abstract narrative because of how many different parts the whole edifice had, and how different glimpses of that whole shape appeared in disparate places over years. But the Monks trilogy is his most profound, because it’s based in the highest concept Moffat has ever developed.

It's also significant that the Monks appear in the garb of a religious
order. It's an institution whose job is to provide people with
authoritative truth, but which all too often becomes an
authoritarian institution whose job is to enforce their fidelity to
your truth. But the fidelity of chains is no faith at all.
A meditation on the concept of a link between ethics and epistemology – that love is truth.

Genuine truth is revealed in the most extreme situation – Veritas in Extremis. Such a truth isn’t just any old fact. It’s a truth that has such a power for you that you can devote your existence to it in that instance. You can live the whole rest of your life in fidelity to the core idea of that truth.

Facing death, or with the world and your best friend’s life in the balance, or as the last, tenuous anchor to reality and the phantom of a worthwhile life.

Respectively, the Master facing execution, Bill’s submission to the Monks for saving the Doctor, and Bill’s fidelity to the memory of her mother that she created herself. These moments of ethical truth are moments of salvation – for the Master, the Doctor, and humanity respectively.

The Monks, in contrast, are creatures of lies. They create simulations – false, inadequate realities, revealed through a book called VERITAS. Their security service is named TRUTH.

More than the revelation, VERITAS is the lie’s truth – the Monks’ act of lying. TRUTH in “The Lie of the Land” is also the Monks’ act of lying – their punishment of those who speak the truth as liars.

So the arc of the Monks Trilogy is the demonstration of how to give truth power over lies.

The Faith That Makes Itself True

Each truth whose expression has the power of salvation can be the focal point of a wholly new world coming to be, defined by fidelity to that original saving truth.

This concept of fidelity to a memory that provides the core of your
identity has its roots in the philosophy of Alain Badiou, who
described the mechanism of how this fidelity develops in his
Being and Event. He talks about the event, rather than a memory,
but the function is the same.
That truth is the fidelity of the Master to her friendship with the Doctor that saves her life and begins her transformation into something potentially much more interesting than a mad supervillain. That friendship has defined her life since that moment.

Same with Bill’s fidelity to the Doctor that saves his life and defines her devotion to finding him and overthrowing the Monks with him. That’s a fidelity that’s expressed in “Pyramid,” but comes to fruition in “The Lie of the Land.”

Bill has another fidelity as well, to the memory of her mother. But if it’s a false memory, how can it have the same power as a truth? Because it’s the image through which Bill understand that she has potential beyond being a fry cook, that she has the power to study great concepts and sciences, and to voyage to the far reaches of the universe.

Bill’s image of her mother is itself a lie, but its her image of her real ability to overthrow tyrants and save worlds – an image of humanity more dignified than a mere slave. A false image that stands for a deeper truth, a truth to which she devotes her entire life after meeting the Doctor and getting to know his life.

A factual lie can have the same transformative power as a factual truth if it has the power of ethical salvation.

Of Course He Fucks It Up

What does Whithouse make of it all? Bill’s triumph is a generic “power of love” retread from back in “Closing Time” six years ago. That’s only one way in which he utterly misses the ideas about the nature of truth underlying the entire episode.

"Do you now understand the truth?"
"Uh, not really."
How underwhelming.
Here’s another example. When Bill finds the Doctor again, he’s been the editor of The Voice of the Monks propaganda channel for months. Their confrontation is a perfect moment for a conversation about the nature of truth and lies in the service of power.

That would have been the conversation that drives Bill to shoot the Doctor in a fit of rage. Instead, Whithouse writes the Doctor a generic speech about alien invasion as benevolent paternalism and Pearl Mackie is thankfully a good enough actor to make it work through her sheer intensity.

The philosophical density of the Monks Trilogy as a whole is reduced to a crap joke about Bill’s paper on free will being six months late.

But he understands nothing about this complex, difficult, and densely philosophical meditation on the relation of truth and love. He just writes out the plot with a few old clichés.

Maybe such an ambitious story structure was bound to flop the first time out. Let’s not forget that it can be done.

Yet You Fail Me Again! Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land, Reviews, 05/06/2017

So let me begin with a simple point. “The Lie of the Land” is a pretty terrible episode of Doctor Who. Phil Sandifer has written in just the right amount of detail a bunch of reasons why it’s terrible, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

This shot of the Doctor and friends lined up looking down a corridor
has been a running gag on Doctor Who since its earliest years. This
shot is from the official publicity photos of "The Lie of the Land,"
but it's such a dully simplistic story, it may as well have been.
Actually it couldn't have been in the actual episode, because we
can only do those shots ironically now, and Toby Whithouse can't
figure out how to write irony. Or anything complex.
They aren't my reasons, though. I agree with them, and think they’re quite right. But I think there are other reasons why “The Lie of the Land” is terrible, which I hope can at least take to a more interesting train of thinking than banging your head against the table.

Is it really worth warning you of spoilers for such a mediocre story? I suppose I should out of politeness. But I’m not going to make a big stink of it. Not today, anyway.

Purely and Only Utility

You see, I think Toby Whithouse’s main problem as a writer is that he doesn’t know how to do anything subtly. He can’t suggest. He can’t develop an evocative image. He can’t write dialogue with deeper, implicit meanings.

He only writes words that move the plot. They’re the kind of scripts you might be able to get away with in Patrick Troughton’s middle year, when the producers thought all the show was about was humans in some sci-fi base under siege from evil monsters.

I think that’s really Whithouse’s core problem, in terms of the craft of writing. Though I think Sandifer has written much more profound essays examining the many dimensions of his flaws. I thank him for that, because now I don’t have to.

Because I only want to focus on his problem as a writing craftsperson at the micro-level of his dialogue. Sandifer called Whithouse’s bomb of a big-budget showcase series The Game his failed audition piece to take over from Steven Moffat as Doctor Who’s central creative producer. He failed when he produced such a clichéd, conceptually empty, ripoff of a spy thriller.

Whithouse is one of the longest-running veterans of the writers'
stable in 21st century Doctor Who. I've come to think that today,
it amounts to something of a pity commission.
But there’s another, smaller audition that Whithouse failed as well. “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” the worst story in Peter Capaldi’s second season, back in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story turns out to be an audition of whether he’ll ever write in Doctor Who again.

One Man’s Undeserved Prominence

Remember, Toby Whithouse is one of the longest-running veteran writers of contemporary Doctor Who. His first story was “School Reunion,” more than a decade ago. He wrote regularly in the Moffat era, but his stories in the Matt Smith years were always quite unremarkable.

“Vampires in Venice” was an ordinary monster runaround plot with barely dimensional supporting characters and terribly generic post Time War villains of a sort Russell T Davies got much more interesting mileage from.

It was only a good episode because it was the first time we saw the team of Smith’s Doctor with both Amy and Rory through a whole story. Even the beloved “School Reunion” was similar – a low-rent world-conquering monster plot enlivened more than it deserved by brilliant performances from all four leads. We only thought he was good because the actors made his stories much more interesting than his scripts.

“The God Complex” and “A Town Called Mercy” were terribly generic ‘brooding male protagonist’ stories, which mistook a central male character’s feeling conflicted about his moral compromises for an entire story’s worth of drama. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan tried to make these stories more than what they were, but it was too much for them.

The biggest challenge Whithouse had in this episode was his most
subtle one. In the scene with the Doctor, Bill, and the Master, he
had to write the Master as someone who could still think as
ruthlessly as a supervillain, but who was developing a sort of
conscience. He came very close here, but bombed the last, most
important moment she had in the entire Monks trilogy. More
on that sedentary cock-up tomorrow.
Early Whithouse Doctor Who plots were vintage for 40 years before they were written. The best he could do in his middle period was muster some Frank Miller inspired male brooding. It’s just plain boring.

Can You Force a Seed to Blossom?

“Under the Lake” / “Before the Flood” were different. Steven Moffat gave him a brief with a genuinely fascinating idea in it. A magic word that turns your mind into a signal amplifier on death.

Riff on the moral terror of murder to defile the corpse! The visual effects department has promised to make the ghosts as horrifying as possible, with skull-like empty eyes. It could be a fascinating and cerebral engagement with the macabre!

Whithouse bombed the job pathetically. He wrote a generic evil monster story that ignored everything most interesting about the narrative, and reduced the entire guest cast to generic base-under-siege fodder. That was a throwback to the worst of the Troughton years – Whithouse’s original Doctor Who plot comfort zone – with a squishy character moment of unspoken love as stalking behaviour.

But with “The Lie of the Land,” Moffat gave Whithouse one more chance. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe he couldn’t get anyone else because the other good ones were already on Chris Chibnall’s team working on their head-start scripts for 2018.

Whithouse was given a corker. 1) “The Lie of the Land” concludes the Monks trilogy, a multi-level metafictional arc. 2) That metafiction narrative was a complex and subtle meditation on how truth and knowledge destabilize the world we accept as real.

I genuinely think Steven Moffat’s brief consisted of giving Whithouse a literal scene-by-scene walkthrough of the story, a full treatment, just as it appeared on screen. Only the dialogue and general movements like “Bill takes a sip of coffee” were up to Whithouse.

He still fucks up. I’ll say how tomorrow, because it will create a post much too long.