The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Let Zygons Be Zygons": The Light and the Dark

"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder."

--The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class)

Jack Tanner is, of course, fictitious. But his creator, G. Bernard Shaw was no fool, and was a dedicated Socialist; his pragmatism and gradualist socialism pervades the manifesto he wrote for Tanner. Unlike the fictional Jack Tanner, however, Jack Grahamis a tad more utopian, resulting in a sweeping condemnation of Doctor Who's handling of the The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, more in ideological grounds than on aesthetic:
The story is as thematically unstable as a Zygon. It declares itself to be about ISIS. Then declares itself to be about ‘immigration’. The story also brings in the issue of revolution. This is entirely extraneous and unforced, and a matter of ideological choice. There was no need to bring in this topic. Consciously or not, the concept/theme of revolution was imported into the story and associated with ISIS.

“We have a Zygon revolution on our hands” someone says. Naturally, a revolution is portrayed as about the worst thing imaginable. And, also naturally, a revolution is the action of a minority. Even as the story falls over itself to disavow any possible Islamophobic interpretation, as it goes to great pains to make all the right noises about how the extremists are in a minority, it also therefore paints revolution as the fanatical, illegitimate actions of an unrepresentative clique.. . .

“Then we will die in the fire rather than living in chains,” says Bonnie. This is supposed to terrify us. These are the words of a fanatic. The story takes it for granted that such rhetoric is insincere and chilling. I find it wonderful. This is the kind of political statement almost designed to make me cheer… except that, in this context, it has been given to the standard villainous revolutionary of bourgeois ideology: cynical, nihilistic, cruel, callous, fanatical.


Thus, as always, the collective mind of bourgeois civilisation forgets its own crimes and congratulates itself (inaccurately) on solving the very problems it caused in the first place.

All the same, I refuse to disapprove of, or disavow, anyone who says “we will die in the fire rather than living in chains”. Never.

People have praised the Doctor’s great speech at the end of the second episode. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever hated the Doctor more than at that moment. Reject the cycle of violence, says he, in favour of ‘forgiveness’. It is, of course, for the revolutionary to stop the cycle… the established power doesn’t have to because they want peace and forgiveness by definition. It is for the oppressed to forgive. The onus is on them. They must bear the burden of the greater moral responsibility. They must be the ones to prove their good intent, etc. Reluctance to do so is to be mocked as childishness, as a tantrum. As is the dream of Utopia (explicitly raised in order to be knocked down). It’s a childish dream because you haven’t got a plan. You need to have minutely detailed schematics and blueprints for the new society drawn up in advance before you can be taken seriously, before you can challenge the existence of the old – even if the old is killing you. Because the bourgeois imagination cannot handle the idea of actual freedom. Freedom, to bourgeois culture, is the freedom to be an atomised individual, a shopper, a voter, a taxpayer, a law-abiding citizen, one of the Zygons who just wants to live here and be left alone, etc. That’s the best there is in the impoverished, philistine bourgeois imagination. It can’t handle the idea of real freedom, radical freedom, freedom that doesn’t work like an RPG, freedom that’s more than the structurally circumscribed licence to move around inside pre-set limits. Even as it eternally chides the revolutionary for wanting just this, this is all it offers. Unless the revolutionary has those detailed schematics, then she is not to be taken seriously. She is just a dreamer, a utopian, a head-in-the-clouds fantasist, playing around with people’s lives for cynical, self-serving, self-deluding reasons. Of course, if the revolutionist does present you with the plans you demanded to see, you can then denounce her as wanting to force everyone to live the way she wants them to live.

“Sit down and talk,” says the Doctor. Oh marvellous. Why didn’t the Palestinians think of that!? Or the blacks in apartheid South Africa? Or the Kikuyu in British-dominated Kenya? Or the Herero and Namaqua in German-dominated Namibia? Or the Native Americans? Or the Congolese in Belgian-dominated Congo? Or the slaves in San Domingue? (I could go on.) Don’t fight! Don’t try to overthrow and chuck out your oppressors – just be reasonable, sit down and talk. After all, all ‘we’ ever want is a reasonable negotiating partner, right? ‘We’ always mean well and want peace, by definition. If only these truculent, trouble-making, zealous, fanatical rebels would calm down, stop causing the problems, and talk to us. I’m sure we could thrash out an equitable arrangement. A nice compromise – between the powerless and their oppressors.

(You might object that the extremist Zygon faction in the story doesn’t fit this model… they’re not particularly oppressed, they’re not natives, they’re ISIS in disguise, etc. But ‘The Zygon Inv’ chooses to tell this story that way. It chooses to invoke revolution against oppression and associate it with a thoroughly unsympathetic ISIS analogue who have no real claim to the moral high ground.)

Of course, in turns out that all revolutionaries need is a good talking to from a nice, liberal compromiser. Stand your revolution down, says the Doctor. And then he forgives them. I’m sorry but just who the hell is he to forgive them? Are we really so arrogant in our culture that we think it is for us to claim the role of father confessor to the rest of the world? Just how sick and twisted is it that an imperialist culture, drastically culpable in creating the turmoil that created ISIS, thinks it has the right to produce morality fables about war? Morality fables which, moreover, accord to us the moral high ground and the right to arbitrate, the right to preach about forgiveness, about the need to sit down and talk? Who the hell do we think we are that we get to absolve anyone?
This is the kind go polemic that gives leftism a bad name. Not because it takes Doctor Who seriously--I think the episode is trying to make a serious point, as I wrote yesterday, and a serious critique is an appropriate response. But it's a terrible critique, because it basically indicts the storyteller for not telling the story that the critic wants to hear, not for any falls in the story. Yes, Harness and Moffatt are using tropes to make the viewer uneasy--Kate Lethbridge Stewart has never been more like her father (She even preens a little while using his famous "Five rounds rapid" line), and never more dangerously wrong. She's the one who must have her memory wiped at the end, because Kate, for all of her wonderful qualities, can't be trusted with the knowledge that the Osgood boxes are dummies. Even Bonnie is more worthy of trust, the story tells us, than Kaye. Dear, funny, lovely Kate, who originally combined the best of her father and of Liz Shaw, but who in Death in Heaven tossed a Cyberman head at the Cyberleader, stood toe to toe with Missy, shanghaied the Doctor--hey, that wasn't very nice, was it? She coerced the Doctor into falling in her schemes, and, in defending the earth in each case, was more than prepared to commit genocide.

Just like her dear old Dad.

Don't be fooled by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, or by the revered and (rightly!) loved Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. They're not white hats; they're gray hats, willing to go to extremities to save the earth. They're Torchwood without the sex pests and with a lot more charm. And, it should be said, they are both incarnated by two fine actors who make you love the characters they play--but you don't have to, you know, and there's a strong case to be made against the Brigadier and his daughter if you take off the Sonic Rose Colored Glasses.

There's a reason Kate apologizes to the Doctor after she comes her Osgood Box. She's let him down, just as the Brig often did. Unlike her father, though, she was a scientist before she was a leader. Her failure to understand is more culpable, as Liz Shaw's would have been.

Bonnie's redemption is slower, but more complete. But again, here, Harness and Moffat complicate the story; the Zygons (unlike the Silurians) weren't an oppressed indigenous people; they were refugees, it is true, but refugees who decided to conquer a less advanced civilization and live off its remnants. They were the aggressors.

The people of earth, represented by Kate, responded with generosity on the Day of the Doctor, largely because Kate (but not Osgood) was plunged into a Rawlsian position behind the veil of ignorance. The Zygons, also behind the veil, settled for half a loaf, and peace broke out. A peace that the Zygons could end, but not without a terrible slaughter that they would almost certainly lose--there 20 million Zygons were slightly more than half the population of Tokyo alone. Bonnie was leading a suicide mission to start a suicide war, out of anger because her people were not dominant a planet that was not theirs alone. No, that swings too far against her; they wanted to live openly, she said, not assimilate. There was some traction to her claim, though not the imperative she felt, as witness the Zygon who had found his new home to be just that, home.

(The affinity Zygons seem to feel for the world views of those they "borrow"from may play a role here; Bonnie transitions easily into becoming Osgood, and shows a ruthlessness in Clara's body that Clara herself sometimes displays).

TL; DR: This is not a depiction of ISIS, or of the consequences of the Iraq War II; it's a parable. About peaceful revolution, about the horrors of war, about that marvelous exchange from C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark that I quoted a while back. Snow's stand-in Lewis Eliot, debates the balance of power in 1937 with a young Nazi:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
The Light and the Dark (first ed.), at pp. 148-149.

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