Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary.

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who
Monday, 01 October 2018 15:47

Reds Behind the Sofa: The Radical Politics of Doctor Who

As we get ready for the next series of Doctor Who, Sean Ledwith praises a show which regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression.

This October Jodie Whittaker will make her debut in one of the most eagerly awaited British television seasons of the decade. For the first time the role of the time-travelling Doctor will be played by a female. When Whittaker’s selection as the ‘Thirteenth’ was announced last year it was predictably received by political troglodytes as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

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For the more enlightened majority, it was a welcome symbol of the growing acceptance of trans rights in British social attitudes. Not for the first time, the world’s long-running sci-fi series has reflected the social and political concerns of the wider population in creative and innovative ways. The series foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of a female Doctor in 2014 by regenerating the hitherto male villain of the Master into Missy, brilliantly played by Michelle Gomez. That inspired piece of casting proved hugely popular with critics and ordinary viewers alike, so the canonical formbook is already in place for Whitaker to be a success in the leading role.

Her predecessor as the Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s twelfth incarnation had also set the scene for a female iteration in his final episode by explaining how the Time Lords of Gallifrey have transcended the hang-ups of human sexuality:

We are the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We are billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a show that has endured in the public’s affection for over 50 years has been shrewd enough to tune into evolving social norms. What is less well known, however, is how on a significant number of occasions, writers and producers of a distictinctly left-wing hue have affected the trajectory of the show and taken it into the territory of radical and even revolutionary politics.

From its very first episode (inauspiciously broadcast the day after the JFK assassination in 1963) the makers of Doctor Who sought to carve out a niche for the show rooted in the democratic and populist instincts of a mass audience that was still being patronised by the hidebound patricians running the postwar BBC. Canadian-born Sydney Newman, as the new Head of Drama at the corporation in that year, explicitly viewed the show as part of his agenda to reflect the emerging values of a decade that would become synonymous with radicalism:

It was still the attitude that BBC drama was still catering to the highly educated, cultured class rather than the mass audience which was not aware of culture as such. But above all, I felt that the dramas really weren’t speaking about common everyday things.

Newman the made the bold step for the time of appointing a woman, Verity Lambert, as producer and an Asian, Waris Hussain, as scriptwriter for the early episodes. The latter explained how the show was partly fuelled by the presence of outsiders at its heart:

I was the first Indian-born director in the drama department. We are dealing with a time when the show had a female producer. Women in those days were secretaries or PAs. They were not the producers of the kind that Verity was. Sydney Newman was a Canadian. Three outsiders working on a project that nobody had any faith in. We were, I think, the first crack in the glass ceiling. That little sliver of a crack being shaped. I think it was a forerunner. None of us realised at the time.”

The initial brief was to create a programme that was both educational and entertaining by dispatching the Doctor and his companions backwards in time to historical locales such as the Aztec Empire or the Crusades in which they would confront hazardous situations but also, hopefully, pique the curiosity of a young audience and encourage them to find out more about such eras.

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The early episodes were mixed in terms of fulfilling these criteria but then the show’s status was transformed by writer Terry Nation’s introduction of its most iconic villains – the Daleks. These genocidal pepperpots have long since secured their status in the national psyche as almost figures of affection. Less than twenty years after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, however, the appearance on British television screens of mobile machines, chanting ‘Exterminate’ and ‘I Obey’ and with an obsession for racial exclusivity, understandably had an unnerving effect on millions of all ages. Memorable images of Daleks patrolling the streets outside Parliament acted as sober reminders of what might have befallen the UK if the forces of fascism had prevailed only two decades earlier.

The parallels between the metallic militarists and their real-world inspiration was made even more evident in the 1975 serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ in which the human progenitors of the race known as the Kaleds wore SS-style black uniforms, saluted each other and were led by a Himmler-like fanatic named Nyder. The chief scientist of the Kaleds and ‘father’ of the Daleks, Davros, is another of the show’s greatest villains and resembles nothing so much as the ranting figure of Hitler, ensconced in a bunker in the last days of the Third Reich.

The era of the Second Doctor (1966-69) played by Patrick Troughton steered clear of political parallels for the most part, and was content to prioritise – at the expense of any educational element – the growing popularity of the bug-eyed monsters that Sydney Newman had hoped to downplay.

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It was with the arrival of Jon Pertwee in the title role in 1970 that the first of the great eras of ‘political Doctor Who’ came about. The Third Doctor is sometimes interpreted as an establishment figure who was happy to be employed by a quasi-government military force known as UNIT, and tasked with conducting extra-terrestrial interactions mainly in the form of high explosives.

In fact, Pertwee’s Doctor was in the vanguard of ecological politics and was frequently to be found having heated exchanges with impersonal, corporate types who were impervious to any agenda that did not involve making profits. The 1973 serial, ‘The Green Death’, is probably most fondly remembered for the giant maggots that menace the Doctor but also deserves a place in cultural history as probably the first primetime television viewing to feature an unambiguous pro-environmental and ant-capitalist message.

Labour MP, Tom Harris recognised the significance of that moment:

They were extremely scary, but not only was it about environmental issues, it was also the first time that a corporate entity, a corporate company became the Big Bad. So it was all about how big companies manipulate communities, which was the first time that was done.”

Two remarkable figures behind the scenes were the inspiration for this pioneering phase of Whovian radicalism. Writer Malcolm Hulke was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was deemed sufficiently subversive to be worthy of MI5 opening a file on him!

Hulke was no uncritical Tankie, however, and clashed with the pro-Moscow party leadership with his support for Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Hungarian rebels of 1956. Hulke was first recruited to Doctor Who by Sydney Newman during the Troughton era, but it was during the tenure of the Third Doctor that he was given the opportunity to script a number of stories that expressed his anti-establishment instincts.

In The Silurians (1970), Pertwee’s Doctor tries to broker peace between humanity and a subterranean race of intelligent reptiles but is thwarted by war-mongering militarists on both sides. In Colony in Space (1971), the Doctor joins forces with ecological freedom fighters to obstruct the rapacious greed of the Interplanetary Mining Company.

In Pertwee’s last season, Invasion of the Dinosaurs featured a high-level conspiracy by government generals and civil servants to use time travel to reverse what they regarded as the excessively democratic aspects of Seventies Britain. Again, the upper-class antagonists are portrayed as indulging in dubious preferences for crypto-fascist attire and mannerisms.

The serial was broadcast amid the political tumult of the 1974 miners’ strike, the three-day week and the ‘Who Governs?’ election called by Edward Heath. With hindsight, the conspiracy depicted onscreen has disturbing parallels with the real plot hatched by rogue elements of the British deep state that subsequently came to light, aimed at toppling the Labour government of Harold Wilson.

These and other similarly daring storylines of the Pertwee era were also the product of Malcolm Hulke’s collaboration with the other left-orientated figure closely involved with the show in the early Seventies - Barry Letts. As producer, the latter encouraged Hulke to create scrips with a distinctive anti-Establishment voice and to portray the Doctor as the bane of bumptious bureaucrats and trigger- happy generals.

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Letts’ radicalism was informed more by what might be described as ‘Left Buddhism’ but still led him to produce serials such as The Monster of Peladon which depicted the Third Doctor taking the side of striking miners on the eponymous planet (also broadcast in the year of Scargill’s showdown with Heath!).

Tom Baker’s iteration of the role from 1974-81 is often regarded by those who recall it – and even many who do not – as the definitive version. However, from a political perspective, the Fourth Doctor represented a retreat from the eco-radicalism of Pertwee. Hulke and Letts departed the show along with Pertwee and their successors were content to let Baker’s larger-than-life personality alone supply most of the dramatic thrust.

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However, one interesting feature of the Baker years was the controversial depiction of the Time Lords as a bickering bunch of over-grown public schoolboys. In The Deadly Assassin (1976), the portentous rulers of Gallery were stripped of their previously omniscient demeanour as featured in the Troughton and Pertwee years, and re-styled as grasping, out-of-touch aristocrats, clearly unsuited to the great responsibilities they had acquired over generations. it was the House of (Time) Lords, perhaps?

Robert Holmes, writer of this story, has spoken of the influence of the Watergate scandal and the Pinochet coup in Chile. The story even identifies the Doctor as a former agent of the CIA (the Celestial Intervention Agency, that is!). This pivotal story, and subsequent ones set on Gallifrey, make it apparent why the Doctor is a quintessentially anti-Establishment figure who rejected the class system and conservatism of his home planet.

In its third decade, Doctor Who began to run out of creative gas, partly because of glossy competition from multi-million dollar US sci-fi imports and also because the bosses at the BBC could not decide what to do with a programme that seemed out of place in the emerging era of satellite television.

Before its demise in 1989, the original run of the show enjoyed one last fleeting outburst of primetime subversion of the status quo. The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, was derided by many at the time for assuring the programme’s doom, thanks to laughable special effects and some dubious choices of companions.

In hindsight, however, McCoy’s portrayal looks like a valiant parting shot at the neoliberal philistines taking over, both at the Beeb and in wider society. The most celebrated political story from this twilight of the classic series was ‘The Happiness Patrol’ that featured a thinly veiled caricature of Thatcher, called Helen A and played with relish by Sheila Hancock. Script editor of the time, Andrew Cartmel, was explicit about his motivation while attached to the show:

John asked me: If there’s one thing you could do with the show, what would it be? And I said, ‘Overthrow the government!’ because I was young and I didn’t like the way things were going at the time.

The disdain for Tory policies by senior figures involved in the show probably did it no favours in the final days of its battle for survival.

Doctor Who’s triumphant resurrection in the 21st century was fuelled by a grassroots movement by hundreds and thousands of fans to refuse to allow it to disappear forever. For the fifteen years it was offscreen, devotees around the world kept the Whoniverse alive by creating novels, blogs, magazines and other forms of alternative media.

Fans such Russell Davies, Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who would go on to become the driving forces of ‘Nu-Who,’ cut their artistic teeth penning Doctor Who novels in these wilderness years.

With Davies as showrunner, the stunningly successful reboot from 2005 quickly made it apparent that the show had not lost its subversive edge. In World War 3 (2005), an alien shape-shifter takes over as British PM and makes reckless claims about a non-existent enemy that has the potential to unleash WMD in 45 seconds. Tony Blair is also the target of John Simms inspired re-imagining of the Master as a cynical British politician who rises to the top with ruthless disregard for friends and enemies alike.

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The Labour-supporting Davies and Moffatt also developed the iconoclastic portrayal of the Time Lords, initiated in the 1970s. In the post-Iraq story End of Time (2010), the Doctor’s own race has become so bloated on their own rhetoric they are prepared to sacrifice the rest of the universe in a demented scheme to save themselves. As symbols of the British Establishment, the Time Lords have degenerated from the respected patricians of the 1960s to the delusional neo-cons of the 21st century.

Peter Capaldi, Whitaker’s predecessor in the role, has added to the Doctor’s repertoire of anti-capitalist sentiments with some well-aimed jibes at the system that many in workplaces throughout the public sector will recognise. Commenting on defective spacesuits that are actually designed to reduce the oxygen supply, the Doctor notes cynically:

This is the end of capitalism. A bottom line where human life has no value at all. We’re fighting an algorithm, a spreadsheet, like every worker everywhere. We’re fighting the suits.

Obviously, it would be absurd to imply the Doctor is an unambiguously left-wing figure and there have indubitably been many occasions in the show’s history when reactionary messages have been prominent. Marxist critic Sasha Simic makes a persuasive case that the character promotes an essentially liberal ideology based on modifying injustices rather than overturning them.

Nevertheless, the perennial popularity of a primetime show that regularly features forces of emancipation outwitting forces of oppression should be something the left can continue to draw sustenance from for many years to come.

Radical Sacrifice
Monday, 20 August 2018 13:33

Radical Sacrifice

Published in Religion

Other articles in this section of Culture Matters have dealt with the revolutionary strands and meanings, often deeply buried, in various religions. Here, Sean Ledwith reviews Terry Eagleton's latest book, which focuses on radical strands in the Catholic religion. The image above is Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion, 1938, in which Chagall identifies Jesus with the suffering Jews of Nazi Germany. It is Pope Francis's favourite painting.

In last year’s British general election, the campaign was twice suspended in the aftermath of Islamist attacks on London. ISIS-inspired individuals have targeted France even more in recent years with horrifying incidents in Paris, Nice and other locations, characterised by a conspicuously disregard for any loss of life, including their own. Terry Eagleton’s latest intervention in contemporary politics, Radical Sacrifice, might initially appear to the casual reader to be motivated by a desire to analyse the clearly sacrificial mentality of the perpetrators of these incidents.

This most obvious form of sacrifice in the modern world, however, forms a surprisingly small part of Eagleton’s focus here. Apart from noting such attackers are ‘falling prey to a spuriously existentialist cult of action for its own sake’ (89), the author avoids any lengthy speculation of the causes and consequences of this headline-grabbing form of sacrifice. Instead, Eagleton seeks to critique the manner in which contemporary theorists such as Agamben and Badiou have sought to integrate the concept into secular intellectual systems that aspire to explain the nature of 21st century societies. Alongside these expositions, Eagleton dissects how thinkers in the ancient world such as Plato and St Paul made sacrifice a core constituent of their world-views.

Beyond that purpose, the author develops a typically sophisticated, if not always convincing, case that Marxism itself would benefit from reconsidering its traditionally sceptical view of the utility of the concept of sacrifice. As such, this volume represents another example of the quasi-religious phase of the ‘later Eagleton’. In other works written in this decade such as Reason, Faith, Revolution, and On Evil, the author has effectively come full circle in his intellectual evolution. Eagleton has creatively sought to synthesise the leftist Catholicism with which he first emerged as a critical force in the 1960s, with the sober and yet stubbornly optimistic brand of Marxism he has clung onto in recent decades. In characteristically unapologetic style, he defends the legitimacy of trying to identify common threads in what most commentators would regard as two incompatible belief-systems. In his view: ‘a great many secular views of the Judaic and Christian lineages are as grossly prejudiced and abysmally ill-informed as those, say,for whom socialism is simply a matter of the Gulag, or feminism the calamitous consequence of women throwing their natural modesty and decorum to the winds’ (x).

Eagleton’s formulations are delivered in the breezily amusing and erudite style that typifies his recent output. There is the usual dazzling range of references to figures as diverse as Virgil, Aquinas, Beckett and Woody Allen, along with welcome additions to the growing collection of ‘Eagletonisms’; that is to say, those memorable asides which litter his texts, making a telling point about an aspect of theory but in a down-to-earth manner. Here for example, he muses on the reasons why Christmas Day with Jacques Derrida might not have been a lot of fun, and ‘that if God exists, he must be hopelessly in love with Donald Trump’ (102).

In a more serious vein, Eagleton’s desire to reclaim a putatively progressive version of Catholicism leads him into a number of discussions of what he perceives as the emancipatory and subversive kernel that exists within the conservative shell of his long-lost religious faith. The crucifixion of Jesus, as the historical foundation of the entire Christian tradition, is laden with liberatory significance according to Eagleton. It was the Nazarene’s political agenda, contends the author, that ultimately led him to his fate at Calvary: ‘His solidarity with those who dwell in the borderlands of orthodox society, men and women whose existence signifies a kind of non-being, prefigures the non-being to which he himself is brought on the outer edge of the metropolis. In the person of Jesus, those whom Paul calls the filth of the earth are in principle raised up to glory’ (27).

The Procession to Calvary Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1564

The Procession to Calvary, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

Even some of the more abstruse elements of Catholic doctrine, Eagleton further argues, are decipherable in terms to which modern socialists can relate. He co-opts Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan to re-conceptualise the Eucharist as a ritual that resonates with revolutionary potential concerning the transformation of the class-ridden present into a future post-class society. Christ’s transubstantiation of his body and blood into the bread and wine of the Last Supper (perhaps the most enigmatic of all Catholic shibboleths) becomes, in Eagleton’s terms, the eruption of a revolutionary force of world-shattering proportions into the quotidian mundanity of the everyday: ‘In commemorating a revolutionary Passover from death to life, turning back to the site of the primordial trespass, the Eucharist brings that saving event to bear on the present as the promise of an emancipated future’ (153).

Similarly, Eagleton regards Christ’s subsequent resurrection, according to the biblical account, as primarily a political event with layers of meaning that reverberate through all following generations. The miracle of the rolled stone, he suggests, ‘breaks into the disciples’ defeatist gloom after Calvary with all the illogicality of a Dadaist happening, inaugurating the unimaginably avant-garde reality of the kingdom of God’ (29). He further posits that this occurrence is a prime example of Badiou’s celebrated conceptualisation of the ‘Event’, one of those ‘moments of pure rupture or primordial beginnings which are out of joint with their historical sites, in excess of their contexts, sprung as it were ex nihilio from empirical situations that could not have pre-calculated them’ (29).

Badiou’s explicit commitment to Marxism might appear to imply Eagleton is on relatively solid ground here, trying to draw parallels between a cornerstone of Christian belief and the necessity for revolutionary transformation in the world of late capitalism. He is also surely right to revisit elements of religious faith and practice with a more sympathetic eye than prominent anti-theists such as Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis whose critiques of religion adopt a sneering tone that looks down on believers as ignorant dupes. Eagleton’s sensitivity to the dual nature of religion is truer to the spirit of Marx’s pioneering analysis in 1844 which included not just the famous allusion to the ‘opium of the people’ but also the equally important highlighting of its role for millions as ‘the heart of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions’.

The danger for Eagleton, however, is going too far in the other direction and underplaying the role religion plays in sustaining the mystification and obfuscation that remains crucial to the ideology of class society. His explorations of the subversive potential of aspects of Catholic liturgy are stimulating and indubitably played a major role in his own personal journey towards Marxism. The stark reality, however, is that most people who sit through these rituals on a Sunday morning are unlikely to follow him on the path to revolutionary politics. The minority that do, will be there more likely due to experiences of alienation and exploitation in the workplace, rather than in a church. Catholics in the modern world have contributed courageously to movements from below that have fought against despotic regimes, notably in South America and Eastern Europe; but adherents of the faith have just as often played a reactionary role in perpetuating repressive ideologies, as witnessed in Ireland’s recent gay rights and abortion referenda.

There are also inherent problems involved in the notion of adopting Badiou’s concept of the Event as a useful addition to Marxism. In the definition referred to above, such an occurrence takes place outside ‘empirical situations’ and represents a rupture with the process of historical development. Assuming Eagleton wishes to retain the dialectical nature of the Marxist perspective (otherwise, his frequent references to the term would be anomalous), tendencies in history and society such as the transformation of quantity into quality have to be an integral part of theorisation.

The cornerstone of the Marxist case for a transition to socialism is that quantitative changes in capitalist society, such as the ever-expanding numerical weight of the proletariat and the centrality of socialised sectors of the economy such as education and health, make a qualitatively different mode of production not just desirable but feasible.

Whatever one makes of Badiou’s understanding of the Event, its reliance on ex nihilo occurrences is utterly incompatible with the traditional Marxist account of revolutions being rooted in existing contradictions of the system. Eagleton rightly wants to remind us (and the complacent elite) that the possibility of overturning entrenched power remains genuine and that history is littered with examples of the oppressed striking down their masters. However, for this aspiration to be more than a heartfelt instinct, it needs to be backed up with empirical analysis of objective trends in the currently existing social and economic system that are taking us towards a crisis.

Apart from hopefully anticipating the death of the entire capitalist system, Eagleton also ruminates on the meaning of death for us as individuals and how religious thinkers can provide insights that, again, are assimilatable to those with a materialist outlook. This focus represents the exploration of another trope of the later Eagleton; the attempt to use the human body as the basis for a critique of the postmodern rejection of absolute truth. He points out that death, our unavoidable physical destruction, is an event shared by all members of the human race-past, present and future-and as such, should be regarded as the ultimate focal point for highlighting our collective identity as a species. Death is the force of certainty that crashes through all the ambivalences, nuances and prevarications of postmodernism without a backward glance. According to Eagleton, the facticity of death even has a progressive dimension in political terms: ‘emancipating slaves, springing lifers from their prison cells, releasing the anguished from their afflictions, replacing conflict with tranquillity and cancelling the inequalities between rich and poor. It would be hard to imagine a more potent revolutionary force’ (78).

Passages such as this may perhaps leave the author open to superficial accusations that he is straying close to the mentality of the ISIS-type death cults he condemns elsewhere. A more thoughtful response would be that this approach could be the foundation for a powerful reformulation of materialism with a subversive edge. Eagleton also invokes Hegel (as the supreme dialectician) to articulate how death can be made part of a theory that emphasises our essential other-centred nature. For the great German thinker, ‘death, like law is a universal truth, which nonetheless confronts us with our utter irreducibility as individual selves, at once levelling and individuating’ (78).

This radical conceptualisation of death, the author continues, can be deployed to underline the responsibility we all share to advance the emancipatory project as far as possible in the allotted time nature unconsciously awards us as organic entities on the planet. We must all confront individual extinction at some point in the future, so this realisation should spur us on to avert the collective extinction that capitalism threatens to inflict on the whole of humanity. As individuals, we may be fortunate to be not around when-and if –that cataclysmic day dawns. However, we should conduct our lives as if it is imminent and we are fighting desperately to facilitate an alternative future. In Eagleton’s, characteristically elaborate but stirring words: ‘one should strive to treat every moment as absolute, disentangling it from the ignominy of circumstance, standing inside and outside of history at the same time by living from the end times rather than simply in them’(74).

This review is republished from the Marx and Philosphy Review of Books.