Memory Come to Life and Killing Everything, Doctor Who: Under the Lake, Reviews, 04/10/2015

All it took was some black makeup and some simple CGI
to make one of the scariest monsters in recent memory.
So, that would be The Doctor and Clara land in an undersea oil drilling base and encounter murderous ghosts. Beyond that, I have to say 


Blatantly conforming to the Base Under Siege story structure isn’t the only narrative stereotype Under the Lake follows. The black guy even dies first. The oil company representative even resembles Paul Reiser’s sleazy character from Aliens. There’s even a sequence where the characters confuse the violent ghosts by running around identical grey corridors. 

I don’t really like Toby Whithouse’s approach to the show, and to action-based drama in general. He’s much too interested in overdone stories about the growing angst and self-hatred of stoic, tortured male anti-heroes. I watched one episode of his spy series The Game and I was so bored that I didn’t want to watch another one.

I dislike the fact that he’s gone on record saying that he doesn’t think the Doctor should become a woman after Peter Capaldi’s eventual departure. Overall, he’s old-fashioned in his narrative styles to the point that it undermines the quality of his work. 

Under the Lake did a wonderful job depicting the deaf
base commander and her signing aide, played by an
actually deaf actress Sophie Stone.
But as Under the Lake picked up, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the ideas that flowed from the script. The base under siege, the most tired and simple style of Doctor Who story, was given a jolt of new energy by its themes about memory, the nature of death, its time-looping plot, and a twisted cliffhanger.

The ghosts, with their transparent eyes revealing cavernous hollowed-out insides, are twisted echoes of their living selves. And their appearances, relentlessly drifting from assault to assault, aggressively uttering the poetic coordinates of their signals to deep space. 

They are utterly chilling – nightmare-inducing for children as all the best Doctor Who monsters should be. And even more terrifying is the cliffhanger, where the Doctor has become one of them. 

We know because the show will continue after next week’s Before the Flood that the Doctor and Clara will survive. But how that will happen is the nature of the cliffhanger. Given what we know about the villains in this story, the Doctor will have, somehow, to survive his own death.

That’s the story itself, my own contributions to the notion that these are reviews of Doctor Who. But this story is also deeply invested in exploring the relationship of time and memory, the reality of the past that lurks inside the present.

There are some moments in Under the Lake that play out
in some very conventional ways. Pritchard's death scene
for one. I was watching him encounter a ghost while he's
still in an airlock on an undersea base, and he's taken his
helmet off. I was almost autonomically talking to the
screen, "Put your helmet back on. You stupid man, put
your helmet back on right now." He didn't.
Yes, I’m thinking Bergsonian again. Because his concepts of time, process, and memory have been very influential on my own thinking. And they appear throughout Under the Lake, so prominently that they’ll define the story as a whole.*

* With this season composed entirely of multi-part stories, I’ve occasionally wondered whether my discussion of all the major ideas and themes of one story in its first episode will exhaust what I can say for the following week’s post. But I think Doctor Who is rich enough that I don’t really have to worry.

Consider the mechanics of the monsters themselves. Their threatening manifestations are the ghosts of the dead Tivolian, Moran, and Pritchard. But really, the monster of this story is the inscription in the cabin of the mysterious spaceship. 

It’s a living piece of language, the carrier of the transmission that infests your thoughts and lets the ghosts turn you into a piece of their transmitter. The inscription animates a transmitter ghost within you, which is activated by your death.

The ghost is literally a memory, but not a memory of a past event – It’s an earworm, as the Doctor says, a constantly humming process that runs within you, hidden under all your other activities. This memory process invades you, hides in you imperceptibly. 

The use of constellations as coordinates in this story made
no sense according to our science. But I think it works in
the story. The aliens are describing a path to Earth, but
from the perspective of its endpoint. So from Earth's
point of view, the aliens would travel along a trajectory
that would take them along the stars that make up
Orion's belt and sword. That's how their maps work:
pathways drawn from the end's view of the origin.
Its origin is in the past, the original alien encounter before the town flooded. But it’s not your past. The monster of this story is an invasion of your own narrative by a malignant outsider. There’s no peace in the death this monster offers. You’re overwritten by an entity that animates you into a machinery that had nothing to do with you.

This is a monster that literally steals your soul.

Because memory is your soul. Whether or not it’s before your thoughts in a given moment, your memory is the combined set of affects that have impacted you to create the body and personality that you are now. This is what Bergson means when he says that the past is real. All that has happened to you is part of your present, part of your identity.

The act of remembering is simply focussing on a few of these events in a given moment of thought. I remember the name of that David Bowie song, the correct name of Canada’s Governor General,** the atomic weight of carbon, my favourite stories of the Matt Smith era.

** Thanks for the reminder, Phil. I keep thinking of Daniel Johnston the songwriter, not David Johnston the constitutional scholar.

We most often think of memory as remembering facts like these, but we don’t understand that memory is actually a continuing process of constructing our personalities. It’s not quite a narrative either, although narrative plays an important part in how we understand our own memories and pasts.

Narrative is how our self-conscious thinking – our intentional, subject-centred perspective – constructs and understands our personality. But our actual subjectivity is an aggregation of bits and pieces, millions of ongoing mental processes. 

I also thought it was a pleasant touch that, in a story that
picked up such a notable narrative convention of Doctor
Who in the late 1960s, the design of the alien spaceship
used the white surfaces and smooth walls that are
features of the most striking sets of the Troughton
era. At least, that's what the Troughton era looks like
in my memory.
It’s just like our physical bodies. When we act in the world – walking to work, having conversations, going shopping, writing blogs – we feel the unity of our bodies. That’s our proprioception sense, the ability of our body to detect where it is, its orientation, and what it’s doing. But our actual bodies are massive aggregates of millions of ongoing processes from the sub-atomic, to the chemical, to the cellular, to the personal level.

Our thoughts and mental processes are the same, the interaction of ideas, concepts, memories, flows of thinking and associations, neurochemical flows, and perceptions to make an ongoing personality. We feel its unity because self-consciousness in experience and thought functions like proprioception does for our body. It gives us a feeling of unity in all this aggregated inter-related chaos. 

While I wouldn’t call this feeling of unity a lie, it is a functional fiction about what we are. That unity is one aspect of what we are – if we didn’t feel it, we’d be a severe schizophrenic unable to function in the world. 

It’s parallel to those people who have no sense of proprioception. They have to look directly at their bodies to move their limbs properly. 

The complete picture of a personality is an enormous jumble of ongoing processes colliding together to make a person, a subject, you and me. 

This week’s monster on Doctor Who is a single one of those processes, a set of words that, when you look at some markings carved into a wall, sneaks into those processes. And when you die, every process stops, except that one. It embeds you into another set of complex processes, making you a zombified cog in its machine.

Solid terror.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Enjoying the extra elements you bring into assessing the stories - here especially the exploration of memory and proprioception.

    I used to work at one Autism project where there were various people who had altered (heightened or reduced) senses and for some proprioception. Some of them could feel and see *to much*, which was fascinating to witness and imagine their inner worlds as I spent time with them.

    One guy who saw and heard too much had earlier in life punched himself blind and partially deaf.