Ghost Light: My Ecophilosophical Doctor Who, Jamming, 27/10/2013

I know that I only just instituted by “No More Sundays” idea, and I’m breaking it already. Call it a minor blogging addiction or just an idea I had on Shabbas.

You know from my having mentioned it before that I’m a published Doctor Who scholar. The depth of my work in the field is dwarfed by Phil Sandifer at the TARDIS Eruditorum, but I’ve made one contribution that was noteworthy and read. I even gained a twitter follower because of it. But I’ve had another idea as I was watching Ghost Light, one of my favourite classic series stories, yesterday.

For those of you who haven’t seen Ghost Light, don’t worry if I’m spoiling it. Really, I’m just telling you what’s actually going on, because events in the story move too fast that randomly missing a line can cause you to miss some key information for the characters or the narrative. It’s probably the most dense Doctor Who story ever written. Even in the DVD extras, the author didn’t quite explain it so well. The plot summary on TARDIS Wiki is pretty good, insofar as it describes the events that happen in the story in a linear order. That would actually be a spoiler. Once you know the basic idea behind what happening, the story now becomes about seeing all the parts of the puzzle assemble in such small, momentary fragments, then come together to make sense once you’ve connected them properly.

What I’m about to explain isn’t the narrative, but the condition of the narrative we see on television. Thousands of years ago, a survey ship visited Earth. It was a fully automated biological survey ship, meant to collect a constantly growing catalogue of all life forms that existed. The catalogue would be complete, because the ship’s mission was never-ending; only by constant additions can you have a genuinely complete catalogue of a constantly dynamic realm like always-evolving life. So in 1881, it came back, and materialized in the basement of a Victorian manorhouse, that of the Pritchard family. It found a much more complicated lifeworld to study, because in addition to its biodiversity, it also had cultural diversity, as humans had become culturally creative as well. Imaginary creations, complex mathematics and sciences, profound and complicated philosophical and religious traditions.

If Western values can be said to have reached their essence
in Victorian culture, then a defence of Western values has
a lot of explaining to do.
The ship wasn’t completely automated. It had a controller, and one other organism that was part of its in-built equipment. That other organism was a kind of simulator, a semi-conscious blob that would mimic various organisms on the planet for experimental purposes. Things went wrong when this blob mimicked the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman. Because the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman is a chauvinist imperialist bastard who believes it to be his right by his very nature to be the superior creature and conquer all others, bending them to his desires. His own desires are, of course, the most enlightened, because he’s superior to all creatures by his nature. He even cruelly misinterprets Darwinian theory to justify his egomaniacal personal and cultural sense of total superiority. In order to mimic the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman properly, you had to include these cultural beliefs.

Of course, no Upstanding Victorian Gentleman is going to put up with being ordered around by some technocratic controller. So he locks the ship’s controller in his old booth and takes her place. Here’s where things get disturbing. As in David Lynch disturbing. Because the ship fulfills its survey functions by hypnotizing surrounding organisms. They move and feel just as the ship wants them in order to perform the tasks it needs, but remember everything they did. When the controller is working as it should, one organism is taken to run the cataloguing, becoming a superpowered extension of the ship’s computer existing as pure thought and energy.

When the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman takes over the ship, all its organic survey parts start malfunctioning according to his imbecilic and egotistical conceptions of Darwinist theory and its implicit horrifying morality. The cataloguing computer becomes obsessed with the actual completion of his records, to the point where he tries to stop evolution on Earth by sterilizing the planet. The Upstanding Victorian Gentleman formulates an insane plan to take his rightful (as the naturally superior life form, of course) place at the head of the British Empire, by assassinating Queen Victoria and so proving himself strongest in the Empire. He uses the ship’s controlling powers to turn the house’s staff and family into his pawns and toys.

So much of the discussion of the story treats Light, the avatar of the cataloguing computer, as the true villain of the Ghost Light, because of his immense power and his theatrical reveal at the last cliffhanger. But he’s just as much a victim of the mimic blob’s mutiny, because the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman’s takeover of the ship’s functions has turned it into a monstrous, destructive creature. A creature that perfectly obeys the morals and metaphysical beliefs of the most upstanding Victorian gentleman.

All these attitudes the Upstanding Victorian Gentleman mimic-creature displays are precisely the attitudes of contemporary society that my ecophilosophy manuscript diagnoses and stands against: the destruction that flows from the attitude that you’re the natural pinnacle of creation, a superiority that grants you dominion, dictatorship over all other life on Earth. 

It sums up the horror of the modern human character in dramatic form in a 75-minute cheap sci-fi story. Philosophies that have occupied a whole new modern tradition of thought, combatting the hubris of humanity, are crystallized into three episodes of Doctor Who, if you look hard enough.

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