Black Archives

I was talking to a friend today about The Merchant of Venice. That doesn’t normally happen, by the way; I’m not going all Jonathan Jones on you, trying to pretend that I belong to some imaginary elite of high-minded intellectuals who do nothing all day but pontificate on matters of art. Most of the time we talk about Marvel films, like anyone normal. But a friend of mine asked me which one The Merchant of Venice was, and was it the one with the pound of flesh; and I agreed that it was, and said that you don’t see it so much these days because some people think of it as anti-Semitic (although I personally think you have do some cherry-picking to make that argument). And what my friend said – and the reason I mention this at all – was that we’re all prisoners of our own culture.

What he meant was that because we’re so immersed in, and permeated by, the mores and attitudes of our time and place that it is genuinely difficult to understand an alternative perspective. By his own lights, Shakespeare’s treatment of race issues was normal, perhaps even progressive; the fact that five hundred years later it might seem a little infra dig would never have occurred. By the same token, what do we do that will set the hackles rising on our morally superior descendants? Many would plump for meat-eating, but I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look back and wonder what the hell we were thinking forcing women to totter about in crippling heels for hours on end. Just a guess.

The reason I bring all this up is that culture is fluid, but artefacts of culture are not. While our twenty-first century attitudes to race are (or at least should be) more sophisticated than those of Shakespeare’s day, The Merchant of Venice survives as is, preserving in aspic those elements of another age for us to unpack and, inevitably, misunderstand. And the aspic is spreading; modern data storage techniques have ensured that ever-greater amounts of cultural debris are preserved indefinitely. If these are to be understood, they need to be examined in the greater context of the surrounding culture, otherwise we are liable to leap to foolish conclusions.

All of which is by way of introduction to the Black Archive series from Obverse Books, a series of critical thinkpieces each taking a single Doctor Who story and applying the tools of literary and media criticism to throw light on their context and examine some of their subtler aspects. The series aims to do for Doctor Who what the popular American Philosophy and Popular Culture series has done for a variety of popular shows and films: to recast them in the light of serious academic evaluation and demonstrate that there are serious questions posed by even this most escapist of TV programmes.

Obviously one of the key elements in the success of an endeavour such as this is the selection of episodes and the matching of expertise to the themes you wish to explore, and Black Archive #3: The Ambassadors of Death has made this match wonderfully. The risk that you will always run by indulging in metatextual analysis is that the critique will become detached from anything meaningful to the reader and will disappear into its own navel. Author LM Myles avoids this trap by means of two simple but effective measures. The first is an understanding of pace; evidently a big fan of Ambassadors, she matches her analysis neatly to the plot of the serial, avoiding the undisciplined but easy method of moving the chronology round to match her thoughts. In this way she piggy-backs on the serial’s plot to lend a sense of development to her thoughts so that, for example, an early chapter on feminism in the seventies carries a feeling of making progress rather than merely rehashing dead matter.

The second measure is the application of real-world knowledge. In addition to the political theory, Myles proves both knowledgeable and interesting in the field of real-life space travel, and I would recommend this volume for her potted history of British space research alone. In this she fulfils the double function of giving you all the information you need to understand the essentials while also leaving enough intriguing loose ends floating to make you want to look further. A bibliography also helps point you in the direction of further reading if you should be interested in finding out how America “accidentally nuked” Britain’s first orbital satellite.

Black Archive #3 is a wholly successful exercise of its type. Skilfully written, engaging, persuasive and knowledgeable, it is precisely the sort of exemplar that would want to make you keep an eye out for the rest of the series. As a consequence, it comes as something of a let-down to move onto Black Archive #4: Dark Water / Death in Heaven and see it stumble into all the same traps that Myles so adeptly avoided in her volume.

The first problem with Black Archive #4 is, let us be frank, the choice of subject matter. Peter Capaldi’s brief tenure as the Doctor has undeniably been a roaring success, but really only as far as the Doctor himself goes. Apart from a small handful of standout episodes, the rest of his tenure has been sadly marred by a combination of ludicrous plotting and abominable characterisation. As Purser-Hallard’s exploration of these episodes is not so grounded in the real-world and the factual as its immediate predecessor in the series, it is reliant on our goodwill towards the subject under discussion in order to maintain our interest.

Unfortunately, the subject under discussion is, at least to begin with, Danny Pink. To his credit, Purser-Hallard does discuss the fact that Samuel Anderson’s delicate portrayal can only lighten so much of the manipulative behaviour that Pink-the-character indulges in. Unfortunately, the more Purser-Hallard talks about Danny Pink, the more obvious it becomes that he is avoiding drawing the only possible conclusion: that as a character, Pink is a botch job, stapled together from two or three basic character traits and never unified as a believable person. On the way there are some peculiar omissions; although some time is spent on the Doctor’s perception of Pink as a PE teacher, and the fact that the point is repeatedly belaboured that he is in fact a maths teacher, there is no mention of the fact that his first heroic moment comes in the form of a ludicrous backflip that came from the repertoire of no maths teacher I ever met. Similarly, Purser-Hallard discusses Pink’s aversion to the officer class and, separately, makes a note that his birth name is Rupert without linking these two thoughts together (“Rupert” being, in popular culture at least, British Army slang for a commissioned officer).

That the other companion character under discussion is Clara, the Girl Who Killed Jeopardy, speaks for itself.

Even where the pickings are richer, such as with the discussion of transgender issues surrounding Missy, there’s an unfortunate stalling effect as Purser-Hallard disappears up an alley to debate with the opinion of some other “fanalyst” regarding the gender fluidity of the Master’s previous incarnations, rather than setting out the argument for the reader himself; the consequent effect is of reading the argument backwards, with the conclusion argued before the proof is presented. A chapter describing the nature of the cyberpunk subgenre and discussing whether Dark Water / Death in Heaven fit the description is good on William Gibson but sadly superficial on the implications of real-world technology where, after all, crawling progress to the human brain communicating directly with computers is still made in fields such as prosthetics.

The final chapter, like a hero from a Shakespearian tragedy, is belatedly cognisant of the problems that have beset it. Purser-Hallard explains to the reader that the second Capaldi series has necessitated a complete re-write of the book in the light of further developments, and I couldn’t help wonder whether a complete re-think might have been the better part of valour. In the nineteen sixties, President Nixon is said to have asked Zhou Enlai, then Premier of the People’s Republic of China, what the effect on world history of the French Revolution had been. Enlai’s supposed response is that it was too early to tell. Until Capaldi steps down from the role of the Doctor, it is impossible to frame any of his episodes in the context of his overall character development, and I’m afraid that any assessment of his character arc through Dark Water / Death in Heaven can be summed up in Zhou Enlai’s phrase.

These books have been my introduction to the Black Archive series and, as you can see, my impressions are somewhat mixed. I will certainly be keeping an eye on future developments and will quite definitely be on the lookout for any further instalments penned by the estimable Ms Myles, whose volume I enjoyed very much. While I can’t muster the same enthusiasm for Mr Purser-Hallard’s contribution, I do maintain that the problem lies chiefly with the choice of episodes rather than with the author. As the other volumes of the Black Archives – both those already released and those announced for release this year – are sticking to classic Who for now, I see no reason why the unqualified success of volume #3 could not be repeated.