Thursday, 28 August 2014

Phasers on Stunned

I appear to have broken one of my friends, a colleague and a co-writer!

I've been pretty quiet this week because I've been working really hard on a conference paper (and hopefully journal article). The conference is on The Politics and Law of Doctor Who: its energetic progenitor Danny Nicol has even set up a blog well in advance to kick ideas around outside the closed circle of academia, which is the kind of thing that makes me happy.

I've been thinking for ages that I should put my interest in popular culture and science fiction to good (academic) use rather than treating it as a private pleasure. The geeks have seemingly inherited the earth, looking through cinema and TV listings, so it's not as if SF is a guilty pleasure any more (the extended version of this rant is very similar to the defence of Media and Cultural Studies I will deliver at the drop of a hat).

So anyway, this conference seemed like an ideal opportunity. I toddled off to my esteemed colleague who works extensively in pop culture (particularly serial killers, pornography, 'underground' fiction, comics and so on) because I knew he'd love to have a go at this. Cue months of wading through the oceans of material he found: production notes, spin-off novels and comics, scripts, the lot. Eventually, we picked one Who seven-part adventure ('Inferno')* and a single Trek episode, 'Mirror, Mirror'.** They're both about dangerous searches for energy sources, both feature mirror universes and both appeared on TV in Britain at exactly the same time: 'Mirror, Mirror' aired in the same week as the last episode of 'Inferno'. Who could resist?

'Mirror, Mirror' is famous as the origin of the science fiction trope Beard of Evil, because Spock in the Evil universe has a goatee so you can tell them apart:

In actual fact, Beardy Spock isn't evil, he just behaves cruelly because that's the logical thing to do in a cruel universe. It does mean that Evil Kirk gets to utter the immortal line 'Has the Galaxy gone crazy? Where's your beard?'.

By an amazing coincidence, 'Inferno' also uses facial hair and features to differentiate mirrored characters. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (uptight but decent old stick) has a military moustache. His evil counterpart Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart has no moustache but does have a scar and an eyepatch.


So that's the aesthetics sorted out. What we're interested in is how these popular SF TV shows constructed their 'ideal' politics by representing an 'evil' mirror.*** Bearing in mind that they were made in the late 60s and early 70s, it's interesting that they don't choose Communism. Instead, 'Mirror, Mirror' depicts a piratical world of violent oppression by an Empire, while 'Inferno' chooses a fascist regime, albeit one with Orwellian Stalinist overtones mixed in with a general Nazi atmosphere. So what we think is that both shows avoid criticism of the political cultures which generated them by presenting horrific regimes which some viewers may find resemble states against which they actually fought. 

All seems quite simple. And then I decided that Foucault would be useful here, and I went back to Discipline and Punish, adding 'Technologies of the Self' to the mix. That led me to Kant and the Federation's slightly confused invocation of the categorical imperative, and before long I'd generated 100 pages of notes which seemed to suggest that the Empire (which applies an Agoniser to incompetent crew members) and the Republic (which practises summary execution) are far less oppressive than Who's normal Britain and the Federation, because the Empire doesn't give a damn what you think as long as you do what you're told (and makes you carry around an Agoniser that superior officers use on you when you're not performing up to scratch), whereas the Federation has ways (philosophical 'technologies') to make you love it. It doesn't need to torture you because you've internalised its values and spend your time worrying about whether you've lived up to them in your daily life (hence the importance of the Captain's Log): you govern yourself and become a subject by examining yourself for signs of deviation. The conclusion is that the Doctor's preferred England deserves to survive because it has room for sexiness and intellectual flexibility, whereas the fascist Republic gets blown up because the mad scientist and his party friends are too rigid to admit they need help (and sex). Star Trek's Empire will probably fall or be reformed for the same reasons, with a little help from Not Actually Evil Spock once the 'good' Kirk points out the logic of not committing genocide while giving him a device allowing him to murder his way to the top of the Empire. The Federation, I feel, is a little smug in the way that hegemonic American culture tends to be: I like Doctor Who's rather English assumption that bumbling along without having to be absolutely right all the time is probably the best way to go. Foucault disagrees: he thinks that 'tolerant liberal' states are just subtler at turning individuals into tools of state continuation. 

My colleague thinks this is a slightly fascistic argument, but I'm sticking to the line that it's radically poststructuralist. I've just sent him a largely incoherent and obsessive cowpat of this argument and he's got to a) hack a 20 minute presentation out of it and b) cross out all the bits he thinks are bollocks. The good outcome of all this is that he can't do it tomorrow so I have a day off. The down side is that I've just remembered that rather than go for a long bike ride, I'm going to a funeral instead. 

But when anyone asks me what I do, I can quite truthfully say that students' massive debts pay me to work out what French poststructuralist philosophy has to say about 1970s Saturday evening TV. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it. 

* That's a link to the Tardis Data Core because I love the fact that there's a whole Wikipedia just for Doctor Who. No lives have been wasted doing that at all.  
** And that's a link to the Star Trek equivalent of Wikipedia, Memory Alpha. It's a hell of a lot bigger than the Data Core too (and one day will outstrip Wikipedia because frankly a lot of knowledgeable men care a lot more about SF shows than they do about the rest of our achievements as a species. 
***'Inferno' also has some rubbish monsters called Primords but they make absolutely no narrative sense at all, so we've decided to ignore them. 


Phil said...

Does Foucault actually say that the subtly self-applied techniques of modern governmentality are *more* oppressive than, er, actually being oppressed? Not just the usual well-er-basically arguments - 'also oppressive' or 'an alternative modality of oppression'; not just 'equally oppressive but without the refreshing honesty and transparency of the auto-da-fe'; actually 'more oppressive'? And if he did, did he mean it? I'm curious.

(Also, 'On governmentality' is four pages long. I'm all for concision, but can that essay bear the weight that's been loaded on it?)

oldgirlatuni said...

When/where is the conference? I saw the CFP, but I haven't seen anything more, and I'd like to go. Looks fascinating.