Friday, April 23, 2010

Children Of Earth

I suppose like most nerds brought up on hard sci-fi - that trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, shading off into new wave: Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem - I've always regarded film and TV as the poor cousins of "real" science fiction.

Star Wars on the big screen and Star Trek on the small screen set the tone: fatuous space-opera with spectacular (but mindless) special effects in the former, self-serving imperialist hogwash in the latter. There were exceptions, of course: the psychedelic insanity of Kubrick's 2001, the noir ambiguities of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but for the most part the real action in speculative fiction seemed to lie elsewhere: mostly in those anthologies of "Best Sf stories" I devoured all through my youth.

Of late, though, I've had to revise this attitude. Far from being the impecunious relative, filmed SF is beginning to assume a more dominant role. I put up a post a while ago about how surprisingly impressive the remake of Battlestar Galactica was turning out to be, but I guess I still saw that as a bit of flash in the pan. Now I'm starting to wonder. The main reason for that is Torchwood.

[Doctors to Date:
Query: How can there have been 10 Doctors already
when Gallifreyans are only supposed to go through
9 cycles of metamorphosis?]

Now I've been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest TV memories consist of crouching over a black-and-white set where an old white-haired sage was combatting strange monsters in a set which seemed smaller than the average broom-closet. After that came the fey, Chaplinesque Patrick Troughton, the mod Dandy Jon Pertwee, the sublime Tom Baker, and so on and so forth. There were some pretty fine ideas in some of the stories - some exciting moments - but one has to confess that they were never really good in any objective, demonstrable way. There was always an element of camp about the show, a need to suspend judgment in order to enjoy them. That's been as true of the latest, Welsh-based series as of any of its predecessors. David Tennant was a good Doctor, to be sure - even a very good Doctor - but there's only a limited amount that can actually be done with the role.

So the idea of watching a mere spin-off from Doctor Who never really attracted me much. There've been spin-offs before: the dreadful K-9 and Company comes to mind. Infantile was scarcely the word.

But then we were in the video shop the other day, and there was Children of Earth on the shelf, and I remembered having been assured by another hardcore Doctor Who fan that Torchwood was the bee's knees, so we succumbed to temptation and took it out.

Many hours later, tousle-haired and sleepless, we looked at each other and concluded that we'd have to persevere to the end - that there was no way we were going to get any sleep until we'd got to the end of this particular story.

It's not that the characters are particularly lovable. On the contrary, Gwen, the female star, is quite irritatingly self-satisfied and bossy (in my humble opinion), and I even find Captain Jack rather less than charismatic. There's a certain frisson in the homosexual subplot: boys kissing boys on prime-time TV! But that's not it. The star of this show is the writing.

It's exciting, action-based stuff, to be sure, but what really grabbed me about it - and reminded me strongly of the new look Galactica - was the disenchanted timeliness of its message. You might call it cynical, but I prefer just to see it as terrifyingly credible ...

[The Kiss]

[WARNING: plot spoiler!]

I don't want to wreck the show for those who haven't seen it, but I do have to specify that an alien power has come to earth and is demanding a tribute of children: 10% of the world's population of children, in fact. "Absurd!", you say. Well, of course. But mark how the writers deal with this somewhat improbable premise.

First of all, it turns out that these particular aliens have been here before. That time - in 1965 - they only demanded a ransom of twelve children, in exchange for a promise not to release a virus which would kill an estimated quarter of the world's population. Twelve lives against over a billion? Pretty good deal. The children (orphans, whose absence wouldn't be noted) were duly handed over by Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood institute himself.

Now they've come back - with a vengeance. What's the reaction of the British government? To try and cover up that earlier transaction by ordering the judicial murder of everyone involved in the 1965 operation. Then, to try and persuade the aliens to play along by not mentioning the reason why they've returned to the UK, rather than anywhere else on earth. Lies, prevarication, covering their own arses precede by far any instinct to try and actually combat this invasion.

But what do the aliens need the children for? Well, it turns out that they secrete a chemical which makes them "feel good." In short, this alien embassy is here to ensure that their supply of drugs is secure. The children, we're assured, "feel no pain" - they're simply strapped to a pump so they can give out the alien equivalent of crack cocaine. And, best of all, they can survive for decades like that! Hmmm.

Of course the government's first thought is to keep this secret. What would be the point of causing a panic? And how could you persuade people to hand over ten percent of their children if they know what their fate is going to be? This time the aliens say they'll destroy the entire population of earth if their demands are not met - pour encourager les autres, one supposes: to make sure that no other subservient species get too uppity in the future.

This is dark stuff. But it gets darker. There's a long - and fascinating - conversation around the cabinet table. How to choose the ten percent? Which children should go? A lottery is clearly the only fair way of selecting them ... but of course the children (or, rather, grandchildren) of cabinet ministers must be exempted from taking part!

"But what about nephews and nieces?" shouts one of them.

"Don't try your luck," growls the Prime Minister.

"If you think I'm going to try and explain to my brother what happened to his kids ..." she replies.

The meeting dissolves into bedlam.

But then it turns out that the nephew-and-niece question was meant solely as a debating ploy. Actually her point was that all of them are ready to make exceptions for children they know personally - but that's because these are good, worthwhile children: "the kind who become doctors and teachers and lawyers - who run our schools and our hospitals." What would be the point of wasting children like that? We all know, she goes on, that there's another kind of child: the yobbo, the dole-bludger. Children who'll grow up to be a burden on the state, worthless mouths to feed. Everyone is nodding solemnly by this point. They know the kind of kids she's talking about.

But how could one make sure that it's only this kind of untermensch kids who get handed over to the aliens? Simple. You exempt all the posh schools sight unseen, and just send the army round to the poorer schools, the slum schools - collect all of their kids for an "inoculation" programme.

Does this sound implausible, melodramatic? I really wish it did. I could hear behind them, all the time, the cringing, cowardly voices of those French cabinet ministers at Vichy, explaining how the alternative to rounding up Jews to be handed over to their neighbouring Nazi overlords would be far, far worse: "If we don't do it somebody else will."

And, as the aliens made their pitiless, disgusting demands, I could hear distant echoes of the Opium Wars of the 1840s, when Britain declared war on China to ensure the maintenance of its drug-trade with the celestial Empire. How dare the Chinese government attempt to stem the growth of commerce (meaning, in this case, the creation of vast armies of opium addicts in all their major trading ports)!

Then, at the end of it all, after our heroes had pulled out their somewhat unlikely deus ex machina solution to the alien menace, how implausible that the politicians' first order of business was to decide who to blame it on in order to avoid suffering electorally for having literally rounded up ten percent of the nation's children to be sacrificed to Moloch. How unlike Blair and Bush and their disgusting, lying toadies! I don't where people come up with such strange, unwholesome ideas! By waking up and looking around them, I guess.

[END of plot spoiler]

[Lynley Hood: A City Possessed (2001)]

I don't know. The other thing I've been reading lately is Lynley Hood's terrifying book A City Possessed, about the Christchurch creche debacle in the 1990s, and I couldn't help but see the analogies:
  • The immediate instinct, on the part of those in authority, to shut up dissent, to ignore inconvenient truths, to look for a powerless, vulnerable scapegoat.
  • The incredible effrontery of the establishment (legal as well as political, in this case), who concluded, at the end of one of the various whitewashing "inquiries" into the whole affair, that if it could be proved that there were a large number of miscarriages of justice in New Zealand, then there might be a need to overhaul a system which virtually never reverses a vedict once arrived at. But since the Arthur Allan Thomas case was such an "aberration", according to this looking-glass logic, there's clearly no necessity for such radical steps to be taken. Justice? schmustice ...
  • The instinctive, unquestioning closing of ranks by the ruling class who know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the maintenance of order in society - i.e. the continuation of their own peculiar privileges - requires a few sacrifices to be made from time to time. Because the alternative (we're constantly assured) would be far worse.

I guess Torchwood and Galactica still have to be classified as light entertainment. But I have to say that what the public will tolerate in their TV dramas has certainly changed a lot of late. It's clear that nobody was expected to feel surprised at watching these venal, slimy British politicans paying with their children's lives for their own political futures.

Galactica had a rather more brutally functionalist agenda. "Every woman adores a fascist / The boot in the face" as Sylvia Plath famously asserted. Perhaps one could rephrase that to say that the American system of governance has always had a sneaking sympathy for - and uncomfortable resemblance to - fascism: the insistence on social conformity, the profusion of emotive flag-waving and symbolic reenactments of nationhood ... Galactica was interesting because it examined such attitudes - at length, with pellucid, dispassionate logic - rather than simply embodying them (unlike Star Trek and its innumerable sequels).

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we've entered some kind of golden age of TV SF - that everything on that medium is now worthy of serious attention. What I am saying is that a few select TV shows have somehow managed to creep under the radar and say some very hard-hitting things about the nature of our civilization: the way we live now. For every Torchwood, there are still a number of fatuous, pointless miniseries like V and its ilk, but at least now the word is out. Where pulp fiction - in the hands of masters such as J. G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick - once led the charge, now it's the TV writers: mostly, to be sure, the Balzacian creators of such sprawling realist epics as The Wire or Deadwood, but also the humble, ill-funded script-writers of science-fiction TV.

[The Wire (2002-2009):


Dougal said...

The non plot-spoiler bits of this post are interesting stuff, and caught my attention enough to make me skip the rest until I've seen the shows being discussed.

On Star Trek and "self-serving imperialist hogwash": Jack do you know Adam Roberts' discussion of ST in his wee Routledge book on Sci Fi? It's not exactly a reading which redeems (and doesn't try to), but it usefully complicates, particularly on race and race anxiety.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I don't know the Roberts book, Dougal, but I certainly accept that the Star Trek situation is far more complex than I give it credit for here - Uhura, Chekov and the others (even Spock!) were important role models for tolerance in their time. I guess what I always objected to in the original show (plus its various offshoots) was the cult of personality surrounding the Star Ship Captain / Admiral / Commander or whatever and the remorseless focus on trivial aspects of their individual characters and tastes - something slightly Roman in that: an aspect of the automatic deification of warlords and emperors. In short, it seemed more to enshrine the problem than to be part of the solution, but of course there are a great many further distinctions to be made if one were to analyse them seriously, rather than caricature them for polemic purposes (as I admittedly do here) ...

Fatal Paradox said...

Re Star Trek while I can definitely see problematic aspects from a political angle (as is also the case with Battlestar Galactica) this doesn't seem to prevent me personally from enjoying it as an aesthetic spectacle. I think this is because Star Trek does at least attempt to explore philosophical issues in an intelligent manner, unlike (for example) the Star Wars franchise, which is really just George Lucas' warmed over rehash of Joseph Campbell (Ronald Reagan's favourite pop-psychology/mythology guru). Also it needs to be remembered that each Star Trek incarnation differs quite substantially in its 'weltanschauung' from its companion series - just look at the contrast between the Cold War jingoism of the original series and the liberal utopianism of TNG and Voyager...