Sunday, December 29, 2013

Doctor Who 6-06: The Almost People

Freud used the double or the doppelganger as one of the clearest examples of the uncanny there is, and it's been a staple of horror fiction for centuries. Doubles and clones have also been rich fodder for science fiction for quite some time, provoking social commentary and philosophical musings. Doctor Who borrows liberally by both genres to make its concoction of space-time fantasy work, and so it's not surprising that it would have its fair share of duplicates. We've already had a forged Rose (in “New Earth") and a clone Martha (in “The Sontaran Strategem”), to say nothing of the uniform replication of the Cybermen or the Daleks, and that's just off the top of my head. In the sixth-season two-parter consisting of “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People”, Doctor Who addresses the idea of the double much more directly, giving us an extensive cast of characters and then giving all of them an almost-but-not-quite doppelganger, including a double Doctor.

Why is the doppelganger so unnerving? “The Almost People” practically takes for granted that it is, especially in the originals' reaction to their copies. Theoretically, another copy of yourself ought to be one of the least threatening things imaginable – after all, there's nothing you know more thoroughly than yourself, and a duplicate should have the same interests and personality as you do. But this is not the case.

Freud suggests that doubles, whether in the form of dolls, puppets, or more supernatural entities, scare us because they are almost-but-not-quite human. In “The Uncanny”, he writes that “the 'double' was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an 'energetic denial of the power of death', as Rank says”. The double is originally, according to Freud, formed as a defense mechanism against the limitations of the mortal body, such as an imaginary friend or the religious conscience. If we can replicate ourselves, we do not have to accept death.

Doctor Who literalizes this through the “gangers”, low-grade copies of human beings who are used to do hazardous work [1]. Humans can manipulate perfect copies of themselves, preserving their real bodies from any danger. In the cold open of “The Rebel Flesh”, a worker falls into a vat of acid and everyone casually jokes about it. His ganger disintegrates, but his original body is left alive. In Doctor Who, as in Freud, doppelgangers are literally a way to bypass death and the limitations of the mortal body.

But if this is their purpose, then such duplicates are inevitably doomed to fail, because nobody can live forever (although it would be nice). If we create an immortal doppelganger, Freud argues, then we inevitably become horrified of it. It is ultimately not like us, because it lacks a key aspect of human experience, mortality. This difference ultimately brings home the fact of our own death, and creates the sensation of the uncanny. This is why immaculately embalmed corpses are so uncanny. As Freud puts it, “From having been an assurance of immortality, [the double] becomes the ghastly harbinger of death”.

This is of course a very specific narrative to suggest as an universal human development, which is why I'm usually a little queasy about Freudian readings. But even if we don't read Freud as speaking to the universal human condition, he undoubtedly speaks to the anxieties of the Western European intellectual culture he was a part of. Freud read texts, such as the stories of E. T. A. Hoffman, and authors of fiction in turn read Freud and were influenced by him.  Doctor Who is also a part of this culture, or at least a distant cousin. If there isn't an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor and Siggy fight some monster together, there probably will be one day. The gangers match up too closely to Freud's theory of the doppelganger for it to be entirely coincidental.

This two-parter dramatizes the persistent fear that makes the doppelganger uncanny: that it can never fully be classified among the other immobile objects that you use, that it might just cling to a life of its own. This is why there are so many horror stories about animate dolls and mannequins (including the first episode of new Who). The workers here learn that not only has the Flesh become animate through a freak accident, but that it was always in some ways alive.

Amy has to deal with a similar anxiety when confronted with the sight of two Doctors. The perfect duplication of a man she knows and loves calls into question the idea of individuality and personal essence that is so essential to our contemporary understanding of the human self. The public anxiety about cloning has perhaps the same rationale: if it's possible to make an identical copy of me, then I become no longer myself but simply one of a potentially infinite number of iterations of the same DNA, interchangeable with any number of others. This is also why, by some accounts, twins are uncanny (The Shining, anyone?) For Amy, seeing another Doctor with the same tics and eccentricities as the one she loves calls into question the validity of that love, which is forced to either distinguish between identical objects or admit that it is not a love for an individual but for a series of infinitely copyable characteristics.

Amy reacts by choosing the former option, assuming that the flesh-created Doctor is a fake and treating him as an unreliable copy. She tries to assert the singularity of the Doctor's identity, noting that “there can really only be one” and calling the Flesh duplicate “almost the Doctor” (a PhD candidate, maybe?) Later in the episode, the two Doctors reveal that they have tricked Amy and that the one she thought was the original was actually the Flesh copy. The episode presents this as Amy being taught a lesson in not being prejudiced against clones or whatever, but I think there's something horrifying in this plot. Amy's relationship with the Doctor, whose strength has been a central point of many prior episodes, appears here as a directionless prejudice that can be easily confused. The only way to maintain genuine relationships, “The Almost People” suggests, is to accept that the ones you love can be replaced by those with similar enough characteristics. This is the happy ending of one of the episode's subplots, in which a child's father is replaced by a loving ganger, and it also echoes the happy ending given to Rose in an earlier season, in which she was given an incomplete copy of the Doctor that could serve as a lover in a way the real one couldn't.

I don't want to say that this message is wrong, but I don't think it's as self-evidently right as “The Almost People” suggests. The episode largely uses a liberal human rights framework to approach the ethical dilemma suggested by the gangers. The gangers, the Doctor maintains, are simply another oppressed group that needs to be recognized as legitimate and integrated into humanity. While “The Almost People” uses the gangers and their uncanny doubling to create horror and intrigue, its ethical argument suggests that their being duplicates is sort of irrelevant: they are just as legitimate and deserve the same rights and respect as any other liberal subject. This would seem to contradict, however, the ways in which the script also treats the gangers as interchangeable with the originals. This is neither the first nor the last time that Doctor Who features a contradiction between the ideological underpinnings of the genre sources it draws on and the liberal-pacifist ideology that it itself wants to espouse.

As much as this episode's script urges us to treat the gangers as every bit as deserving of humanity as the originals, it also plays up the uncanny horror of the copy. The gangers have trouble holding onto their fully human form, with their faces frequently melting into gooey masks. This is almost textbook uncanny, with the half-formed faces being just close enough to humanity to inspire horror.

The duplicitous Jennifer is singled out as especially monstrous. In an early scene, she is the only one to bear a half-formed face while the other gangers, who are alienated by her revolutionary rhetoric, all look fully human. Later, Jennifer turns into an ogreish monster and begins destroying everything in sight. This undercuts the message of tolerance and equality just a bit. After all, it's not like any of the original-recipe humans turn into giant monsters. This ending fulfills the genre requirements of a Doctor Who story, but it also ultimately suggests that maybe the subaltern [2] – at least its most strident and resistant members – is ultimately a little monstrous after all.

Jennifer's ultimate fate helps to reveal the political ideology underpinning “The Almost People”. In this two-parter the Doctor is depicted as being the force of external rationality keeping two prejudiced extremist groups from killing each other out of irrational hatred. This is the role that Western countries like to imagine themselves playing in global politics[3], and the Doctor acts as the Western power par excellence. The Doctor, white, male, outstandingly intelligent, possessor of advanced technology, looking pristine in his suit and tie, stands in a clear contrast to the workers that he makes peace among, who are dirty, lower-class, and predominantly female. As in the similarly-plotted two-parter from season 5, the two warring factions are lead by irrational war-mongering women, who bring the sanguine men along for the ride. While there certainly are female war-mongers, some serving in the Obama administration as we speak, Doctor Who's focus on them would seem to go against the millennia of very masculine warfare. To convey that war is bad, Doctor Who codes it as either inhuman (the Daleks, to take one example) or feminine.

By presenting the revolt of the gangers against humans as being simply a case of two equally-prejudiced groups who need to set aside their differences, Doctor Who uses the liberal framework of discrimination to demonize class struggle. When Jennifer talks about leading a revolt to free the billion gangers used as slave labour in India, this is portrayed as megalomania.  The ganger man who just wants to see his family is moral; the woman who wants to affect larger political change is not.  The revolt is not even hours old before it becomes Just As Bad as the oppression it fights against.

The Almost People” depicts the gangers as having gone through a tremendous experience of pain, suffering and exploitation. It takes this seriously as both injustice and a psychic wound that affects all of the gangers and even the Doctor. What is most damaging, the script suggests, is the ongoing denial of their humanity in the service of profit and the safety of the privileged. This is why characters in the episode talk obsessively about the eyes of dying gangers, a vision of raw suffering humanity which haunts their dreams. In this there are clear parallels between the gangers and the labouring masses around the world that work unseen all day so that the First World can kick back and watch a science-fiction show.

But because of its ideological framework, determined by both the liberal sympathies of its writer and its position as a BBC institution, Doctor Who is forced to present this exploitation as identity-based prejudice instead of class oppression. Its solution for the subaltern is to shake hands with the oppressors, team up with a liberal-minded white man, and to perhaps go to the newspapers to tell their side of the story – the “spreading awareness” means of politics. I'm not saying that we need to ignore questions of prejudice, or that they can ever be fully explicated from economic questions – the persistent Othering of people in the global south, for instance, makes their economic exploitation much less troubling to the first world. But Doctor Who's inability to grapple with economic class means that we end up with an episode that purports to champion the humanity of the subaltern, and ends up with that subaltern literally turning into a monster that has to be stopped. The science-fictional nature of this subaltern means that liberalism is much more nakedly present here than it probably would be in a BBC show about a real-life oppressed group[4]. Instead of covering this ideology up with equivocation, Doctor Who distracts from it with the usual litany of heroic sacrifices, half-hearted romance plotlines, and long minutes of people running down hallways.

In his book In the Break, Fred Moten uses Freud's idea of the double in a more radical way. Moten reads black art as the “revolt of the object”, in which that which was previously treated as an object asserts its subjectivity. This is the underpinning of countless sci-fi stories in which computers, robots, or some other friendly new technology comes to live and rebels against its owners – the seminal example is probably Hal's rebellion in 2001. This exploits our psychological need for the classifications between subject and object: if the things we treated as senseless and inanimate, the things we abuse every day for our own purposes, became able to act themselves then not just our sense of the object but also our sense of the subject would be called into question. Drawing on Moten's idea of the “revolt of the object”, we can see such plotlines as also addressing post-colonial anxiety about the revolt of the last group of people we thought were objects. Science-fiction stories like 2001 allow white people to relive this revolt in a way that makes their own position sympathetic instead of monstrous.

As a description of this two-parter, “the revolt of the object” is apt to the point of literalness. In these episodes, Doctor Who makes the link between revolt-of-technology plots and the revolt of the oppressed explicit: the gangers are both a new, uncanny technology and a group of subaltern workers. They stand in here for the global poor who work 18-hour days stitching our clothes, and as Moten would suggest they finally gain a modicum of power when they gain the ability to speak. For the first time the gangers are able to vocalize the oppression and trauma that they could only convey through the looks in their eyes. The Doctor says that once the world finds out what's been happening everything will change. This a little naive – after all, we have a pretty good idea of what that “Made in Indonesia” label means, but we usually buy the shirt anyways and go on with our days – but even absent other changes the subaltern claiming its voice is at least a small victory.

Thus far I've been reading this episode as a piece of metaphors, in which the gangers are simply a device for talking about psychological drives (as read through Freud) and political positioning (as read through Moten). But it would be too simplistic to say that the gangers are the same as a sweatshop worker, or even the same as one of Freud's dolls. What makes fantasy so thrilling and strange is that its creations are never quite reducible to a symbol for something that's safely real. Even in the most didactic of science fiction, the speculative elements have some quality about them that a social treatise would not.

So if I want to read the gangers as a metaphor for the global poor, this is complicated by the ways in which the gangers are not like the global poor – namely, in how they exactly duplicate and in some ways share an identity with the privileged class. This is not the case with colonialism and its contemporary counterpart, where people in the colonized world were considered less-than-human because of their differences. Examining these differences opens up a third level on which we can analyze this episode, a level which is perhaps more flattering to its creators. What does “The Almost People” suggest about human consciousness and individuality?

At many points in the episode, the gangers and their originals almost seem to share a single brain. This is most obvious in the Doctor and his double, who finish each other's sentences and turn out to be indistinguishable even by those close to them. Their manic scheming has the ring of masturbation, with the usual exchange of fancy and skepticism that takes place between the Doctor and his companions being reduced to an endless feedback loop of whimsy. Doctor Who tells us over and over again that the Doctor is special, that he is sui generis, the last of his kind, so it presents the cloning as not something that diminishes the Doctor's specialness (as Amy understands it) but as something that expands it. There are two bodies, but they share the same name, the same persona, and the same identity.

This profound sameness extends to the workers that turn against each other.  One character remarks, with a hint of melancholy, that she can predict her ganger's actions because they're exactly what she would do. One subplot concludes with a ganger taking the original's place in his family, as though the two were completely interchangeable. This seems to cut against Doctor Who's usual liberal moralizing, employed awkwardly in this story, that we need to accept those that are different. In “The Almost People”, the problem lies in accepting those that are the same.

This formulation takes us away from any comprehensible political allegory and towards a more psychological understanding of what the workers are so afraid of. In “Amy's Choice”, Doctor Who suggested that the one in the universe who hated the Doctor most was not Daleks or the Master or any of the countless Who villains over the years, but in fact the Doctor himself[5]. Following this logic, the Flesh forces us to confront those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not – our capacity for cruelty and persecution, for instance. Given this, the doubling becomes a kind of moral crucible, where good characters such as the Doctor and the noble father prosper, and evil characters such as Jennifer reveal their inner perfidy.

The double is horrific because it makes us see ourselves too clearly. Investing humanity in the basest tools of production makes us realize the ways in which we are ourselves tools of a larger production machine. We like to subconsciously believe that we are unique, and from our perspective we are: we are the only accessible subjective mind in the universe. But the double reminds us that we are ultimately just one of a set, an object like any other. These are directions that the episode never really addresses, perhaps because they would be insoluble in 45 minutes, but also because it would upset the minority rights framework the episode keeps trying to use. This is the central contradiction in not just Doctor Who but in so much contemporary genre fiction: the urge to support the liberal project of peaceful reconciliation and tolerance[6] buts up against the need for horrific, perhaps purely evil monsters. Hence we have the ungainly insistence in other episodes that the Daleks are pure evil, but it would still be wrong to kill them.

There is another tension underlying this episode, albeit one that the viewer has likely forgotten about until the end. The question of Amy's quasi-existent baby has hung over the first half of the sixth season, albeit mostly in the form of the Doctor staring at a scanner at the end of the episode. The frenetic end to “The Almost People”, almost disconnected from what has come before, comes as a narrative version of Freud's return of the repressed. The episode has lulled us into a sense of security. As savvy viewers, we have assessed that this is not a “mythos episode”, not written by Stephen Moffat, and the plot is fairly standard Doctor Who fare. The last thing we expect is a major meta-plot development after forty minutes of episodic narrative. Moffat pulled this trick before in “Cold Blood”, but it still feels startling here.

It turns out that Amy, who most voiciferously insisted that there could only be one doctor, has herself been inhabiting a Flesh copy of herself for the whole season. This demonstrates nicely the frightening possibilities opened up by the doppelganger: having been confronted with the unstable identity of the Doctor and the workers they rescue, Amy's identity itself becomes unstable, with her conscious life split between two bodies [7].

Interestingly, after spending two episodes telling us that gangers are autonomous creatures that deserve rights, the Doctor liquidates Amy's ganger without any compunction. This seeming contradiction points us towards both the limitations of Doctor Who's liberal human-rights framework and the broader connotations of doubles. The ganger, when used by the Silence to falsify Amy's memories and invade her body, is ultimately too horrific and uncanny to be reconciled with our definition of humanity. Here the ganger is not a kind of replication but a kind of theft: it has stolen Amy's self-knowledge by deconstructing the identification between body and mind.

This twist is also compelling because it taps into broader psychological fears about pregnancy. Pregnancy is a kind of duplication and also a kind of theft, in which one's body becomes not entirely theirs. This ordinary psychological uncertainty is translated into the hyperbolic language of science fiction, in which Amy's pregnancy makes her both literally a duplicate and literally hostage to an alien force which denies her her own body. The process of creating another human is neither as physically easy as the technology of the Flesh would make it appear, nor as psychologically easy as the Doctor's moralism would: it involves an encounter with the limits of the self.

The Almost People” is then ultimately a story about biopolitics, about how regimes of truth, whether the medical fascism of the Silence or the bourgeois moralism of the Doctor, try to tame the uncanny possibilities of bodily replication. While these attempts triumph in the timespan of the episode, they are both ultimately destined to fail, and their failures are embedded in this story's many contradictions. Like many Doctor Who villains, “The Almost People” unleashes a force which it ultimately can't control.

[1] While the gangers aren't as autonomous as replicants (or at least they're not supposed to be), this story has more than a passing resemblance to Blade Runner.

[2]Belatedly I realized that readers outside of academic circles might not be familiar with the term “subaltern”. As Wikipedia defines it, the subaltern is “the social group who is socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland”. The subaltern refers to people and cultures that are considered less important and perhaps even inhuman in colonial society, i. e. the colonized. I kind of wish I was more familiar with Gayatri Spivak, as her ideas about the subaltern voice seem quite applicable to this post.

[3] This is obviously visible in contemporary discourse around Libya and Syria, but in TV terms it can be seen perhaps most nakedly in the first-season West Wing episode “Lord John Marbury”, in which the collective colonial powers have to keep the brown people from destroying each other out of religious hatred. This stands in contrast with neoconservative justifications of war, which do their best to present the countries we bomb as threats to the homeland: when liberals bomb other countries, they do so for those countries' own good.

[4]I would say that no one would argue that black revolutionaries were just as bad as the people that enslaved them, but then again, Bioshock Infinite.

[5]This would seem to be contradicted by the meeting of the two Doctors in this episode, and the other times where the Doctor is delighted to encounter a peer.

[6]Of course, in practice liberalism offers this peaceful reconciliation as a moral imperative only in certain situations. To protest an American war, smashing a cop car is an unacceptable step into violence; to protest a Syrian war, carpet bombing is an acceptable response.

[7]We also get duplicate Amys in “The Girl Who Waited”, “Amy's Choice”, and probably some other episodes that I can't remember now. It's something of a motif.