Tuesday, December 27, 2005

So, I'm back. Sort of. At least for the duration of the election - but that can wait. It's not as though I've felt I had nothing to say for most of the past term - to that audience such as I have - but more that I've felt I haven't had enough to say. To that end, I'm going to try waxing Lileksian for a while, with regular, multifaceted updates; it might, I imagine, take some of the edge off of having to come up with a fully elaborated thesis (brief though it may be) in separate posts. That, and it'd become a pain to match appropriate lyrics for titles to blog content, so that what started as an innocent - if overly twee - gimmick eventually became an obstacle to casual expression. All that's neither here nor there, however; it's not what's been bothering me over Christmas. The first thing that has is a 1939 MGM animated short, which I caught on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday morning; this was first of all a surprise, because I didn't realize the channel was even available in Canada. I'd also never seen this particular short before, so I was also surprised by its stunning...well...something, be it amorality or naïveté. I'm speaking of "Peace on Earth," which seems to be uncannily well-regarded despite its very specific context. In a nutshell, a strangely secularized (and annoyingly repetitious) chorus of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a leitmotif for depicting a charmingly crusty grandfather squirrel explaining to his grandchildren who the mysterious "men" of the lyric "Peace on Earth, goodwill to men" are. This is a post-apocalyptic world, you see, inherited by the innocent woodland creatures after the last humans destroyed each other in a massive (and strangely looking to be fought with arms of WWI vintage) war. Among other scenes hanging a lampshade on the simplistic message is one where the younger grandfather squirrel, in flashback, discovers a bible open to the Sixth Commandment, and by gum, not fixin' to cause no harm to other critters what one meets in this big ol' world seems like a jim-dandy idea to him. (I paraphrase, of course, but not much.) To be fair, there is a logical and excusable context for this kind of thinking - or would have been, about a decade prior. It was 1928, after all, that saw the exquisite diplomatic fantasy that was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, espousing the notion that it was, in fact, possible to end the practice of war by legal fiat. After the horrors of the Great War, and without the spectre of German militarism yet visibly back on the horizon, I don't think this was an unreasonable position to take, idealistic though it may have been. By "Peace on Earth's" release on the 9th of December 1939, however, and even by its time of production throughout 1939, well...let's just note that it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, with all that implies after the invasions of Poland and Finland. The best that can be said about "Peace on Earth" is that it was an idealistic call to pacifism as a realistic foreign policy strategy, one which simply happened, in retrospect, to be very badly timed. I'm more inclined to call it an ugly little piece of deluded, head-in-the-sand isolationism - the steadfast belief, too common in Americans before Pearl Harbor, that what happens over there is none of our business. While technically superb, especially in effect animation and rotoscoping techniques, it's a sad artifact of the period. The whole thing is a reminder of the smug sense of superiority felt by a certain type of person, on the possibility of simply opting out of dealing with unreasonable men - the same sort who would embrace such vapid statements as "War is over, if you want it," two generations later - and how terribly misplaced that belief must necessarily be. The second thing is Doctor Who, and specifically the Christmas special-cum-stealth Season 28 premiere that aired last night on CBC. The Doctor has just regenerated from a painful death in last season's finale, leaving him more or less helplessly comatose (and considerably more David Tennant-shaped) for most of the episode - and inconveniently so, given an invasion of Earth by the barbaric Sycorax, who threaten from their huge city-ship to variously kill or enslave all of humanity merely because they can. Prime Minister Harriet Marsh (who won in a landslide majority after the Doctor's last significant visit to contemporary Earth, where he removed a number of alien conspirators from Number Ten, leaving backbencher Marsh the political heroine of the day) is teleported to the Sycorax vessel, along with her advisors from the government command centre attempting countermeasures against the incipient invasion, and given an ultimatum: Surrender. Fortunately, the Doctor wakes up in time to handily beat the invading leader in a duel and entreat the remaining Sycorax to leave, demanding in their travels that they speak of Earth not as a target ripe for pillage - but as a planet ably defended. As the ship leaves, Marsh orders her aide to initiate the countermeasures they'd been preparing, which turn out to be a Death Star-like convergent energy beam weapon that vaporizes the Sycorax. The Doctor is outraged, of course, as any pacifist of convenience might be. How could humanity be so cruel, he demands? Should he instead be warning the rest of the galaxy of the monsters coming from Earth? Marsh coolly points out that the Doctor, while always the saviour of Earth (and particularly Britain) when around, often isn't, and that she has a duty to protect her constituents from vicious alien invaders of unproven reliability. In retaliation, the Doctor initiates a whispering campaign which is implied to end her political career shortly thereafter. Doctor Who has never been particularly subtle in its politics. The projected future of the late 1970s imagined, in the Doctor's universe, the first female British PM being Labourite Shirley Williams. The Seventh Doctor story "The Happiness Patrol", though brilliantly absurdist at points, was largely a juvenile fit of Thatcher-bashing. However, by comparison, that was a masterpiece of restraint and good taste. What I see in this is another instance of isolationism, but in that oddly post-9/11 European passive-aggressive manner: We liked you better as victims. Come wallow in self-pity with us, and we might help. The French felt "We are all Americans now" when the United States was wounded and laid low; the Doctor can only allow sympathy for helpless primitives he can rely on to require his help. When the hurt or threatened dare to proactively defend themselves - as the Doctor himself could not or would not when his own race was all but exterminated by the Daleks - well, that's beyond the pale. But - and this is key - the destruction of the Sycorax is obviously meant to echo the destruction of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, as a purported instance of vindictiveness on the part of victorious Britain. I think Wikipedia's analysis thereof is fairly balanced in explaining just what kind of petty moral equivocation this belief is. The other political allusions therein are so inane I shouldn't even try to reply, but for offering a sentiment I hope should be self-evident: Naked pyramids of prisoners, however reprehensible, != summary execution by painful disintegration. I am pretty sure there's some kind of gap between those two concepts. What is my point, then? I'm not sure. But I do know I'm disappointed by the short-sighted petty politics that the BBC sees fit to endorse today, no less than that selfish and cowardly endorsement of pacifism by the Hollywood of 1939. Not only are the inferable accusations of "The Christmas Invasion" unfair and ridiculous, they're not all that consistent with the character of the Doctor, as malleable as that concept is. I came to love Doctor Who after being introduced to it last season, and I'd hate to have to give up on new episodes for the sake of pervasive ideological foolishness.

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