A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Big Finish is Bad at Being Political

7 June 2023 5:16 PM (politics | criticism)

First, I am not complaining about people politicizing Doctor Who. As with Star Trek, Doctor Who has always been political. The question is whether Big Finish Productions is any good at it. The answer is: No they are not. For some reason, the Sixth Doctor ends up being handed this nonsense the most. Spoilers ahead.

The Lovecraft Invasion

Did you know Lovecraft was racist? If you have a pulse and haven't lived in a cave, you probably do. People have argued that Lovecraft's being racist was the fundamental root of his entire fictional universe. I don't agree; I think the fundamental root of Lovecraft's fiction was being terrified of everything and kind of miserable. (Being terrified of everything and miserable is probably a contributing factor to him being as racist as he was, though.)

There's nothing wrong with pointing this out, but since "Did you know Lovecraft was racist?" is the basis of about 90% of any Lovecraft-adjacent fiction published within the last twenty years, it's rather likely that one, like the author of this audio play, will have nothing particularly interesting to say on the matter. The first problem is failing ‘Show, don't tell’. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country did this quite well; he used Lovecraftian themes to investigate racism, in a heightened, almost absurd setting drawn from the Jim Crow era, blending history and fantasy well. Importantly for a work focusing on racism, Lovecraft Country shows people being racist.

Not so for The Lovecraft Invasion. The sum total of bad, bigoted things Lovecraft does in this episode is…when two people come out of nowhere and assault him then start tying him up he refers to the one most actively grabbing him as a ‘mongrel’ when demanding they leave him alone and go away. This is not particularly virtuous, but doesn't really support the picture they want to paint. If the whole point of your story is to inform everyone that Lovecraft was bigoted, it would kind of help to show him being so beyond an unfortunate choice of wording when demanding complete strangers stop physically assaulting him.

The premise is fine, alien technology is going to bring everything from Lovecraft's imagination to life. You could have lots of fun with this. The Sixth Doctor in particular pontificating at Shub-Niggurath cultists would be great fun. Campy mythology romp would be fine, too! If you want to focus on Lovecraft being racist, showing him alien worlds governed by similar ideas could be done well and would fit with his later letters in real life showing him disagreeing with some of his past views.

Instead, they basically treat Lovecraft as a chewtoy throughout the plot and have his own imagined author-insert character (Randolph Carter) call him pathetic. Which in a different context could be done well: as Lovecraft was plagued by chronic health conditions and life-long anxiety, most folk of his time probably would consider him rather ‘pathetic’. It could be an opportunity to ask him if he's really so opposed to accepting people as they are. They don't do that, because it's less a story than a Twitter post. The author picked up the idea that ‘dunking’ is a progressive act and has no interest in doing much of anything else.

Even more Twittery, the story ends with the Doctor warning his companion and, pretty obviously, the audience that every time they read one of Lovecraft's books, they will to reckon with the fact that he Believed Bad Things, and they might be better off not reading them at all. This is simply out of character. The Doctor has generally been quite happy to appreciate cultural artifacts from quite awful cultures and to be friends with terrible people.

The bigger problem is that this nonsense is neither progressive nor liberal nor even political. It's actually anti-political, born of the same 'politics of defeat' that underlies a lot of online discourse. Giving up on actually impacting the world in any meaningful way, folks instead start making up nonsensical codes of purity or cultural touchstones.

When an author is alive, well-funded, and actively using their resources for evil, not giving them more resources is a reasonable thing to do and to ask of others, and you can debate whether pirating their work acts as a form of promotion or not. In every other case? It's nonsense. Especially if the author is dead. The idea that one should be revolted the work of a creator that does bad stuff is also at bottom just neoliberalism.

Specifically, it's part of a larger trend of encouraging people to identify completely with what they consume. You're living a good, progressive lifestyle so you need good, progressive lifestyle brands, and should only enjoy creative works published by publishing imprints that have progressive cultural markers. It replaces political action with consumption and policing, diffusing any energy that could be used to pursue change, organize, or in any other way do stuff. The entire thing is purity fetishism, and speaking of purity…


Big Finish have released two boxed sets, Purity Undreamed and Purity Unleashed as two installments in the Sixth Doctor line. The individual stories are unremarkable and competent, but the overarching plot, particularly the inciting incident, is rather badly done.

Purity, formerly Professor McBride, is an attempt to create a new villain with her gimmick being that she's a bigot. She's from the present, which avoids the biggest problem with the otherwise excellent TV episode Rosa. (Specifically, having the villain be from the 52nd century. There is no reason why someone from that far in the future would be engaged in anti-black racism. Racism changes over time. It would be like someone from our day getting bent out of shape that barbarians from northern climes whose constitutions make them unthinking and ungovernable are allowed to participate in democracy. It would have been better for someone contemporaneous to the event or from closer to our time to get hold of either future knowledge or time travel technology somehow. Also I'm not a fan of playing saccharine pop songs over climaxes.)

Purity/Professor McBride doesn't seem to be racist. Instead, she's bigoted against disabled people. This is the inciting incident: The Doctor shows her the future and she's shocked, surprised, perhaps even a bit revolted to see that there are disabled people in the future. As a disabled person myself, I think there are lots of interesting things one could do here.

"Why would there be disabled people in the future?" is a reasonable question. It's the perfect kind of thing for science fiction to investigate. You could ask what counts as disabled in a world where you could give people more, or more acute, senses and let Professor McBride show up somewhere everyone considers her disabled. You could investigate the Red Queen's Ratchet and how people have to be constantly remaking themselves to keep abreast of current fashion, and some people just don't want to, can't be bothered, or find the idea some form of violence against their body-image or self-concept. That last part could explain why, in a future with flying hoverchairs, some people prefer using flying hoverchairs to whatever surgeries and treatments would be required to get working legs. You could investigate the problem of people whose specific cause of disability is not amenable to treatment, while most others are, and who find themselves lacking in accommodation or assistive technology because the population of people with their disability fell from tens of millions to thousands.

There's a fantastic number of science fiction stories that really engage with the concept of disability that one could write. Big Finish decided not to. Instead they decided to write a Twitter post. The (supposed) Doctor informs her that she is bigoted and a very bad person and must go away at once. I might add that the Doctor once traveled with a high-ranking (equivalent to colonel) Nazi to teach her to see the world differently. (It didn't quite work out, but that is much more in character.)

There is a saying: ‘use your privilege’. It's slightly unfortunate wording since it encourages misunderstanding of what privilege is, but if we rephrase it as ‘use the power and safety you have’ it's perfectly serviceable. One shouldn't pressure folk to hang around with and educate people who are being horrible to them or acting as conduits for systemic oppression, but people who aren't their targets definitely should do so. The Doctor, being an alien who can survive most deaths, can go anywhere he likes, never seems to suffer from material scarcity unless he's away from his TARDIS or it would be convenient for the plot, and has 'lord' as part of his title seems to me to be someone who has power and safety in abundance. He should have used them.

Nah, don't be silly. A real hero would dunk on them, then boost their dunk into their main timeline so everyone else can see how clev—pardon me, so everyone else can be edified. Professor McBride then runs off and finds the time suit used by the villain of that particular episode and puts it on, and sets out to alter history so disabled people stop happening.

The followup collection, Purity Unleashed isn't bad, especially if you can ignore that the entire reason they're in this situation is because the Doctor got momentarily replaced by a Twitterato due to the incompetence of the author. It does have one serious problem: Fascist musical theater.

There's nothing wrong with having fascist musical theater in a story, but it would help if it were actually shown to be…fascist in some way. Nobody on the stage sings about throwing people out of the country or segregation or anything. They sing about being thrown out of their apartment on Christmas and wanting a central bank that prioritizes the interests of every day people more than rich people.

This is very unfortunate. There certainly are forms of politics that think workers, rather than capital, should control the machinery of the economy, and they aren't fascist. The timing is especially unfortunate since it came out the same time that the US Federal Reserve has been waging a low-level war on workers to 'get wages down'.

This doesn't reflect a secret agenda on the part of Big Finish or the authors, that would be ridiculous. It's just what happens when your idea of politics stops being about actual material circumstances in the actual world and how to change them and starts being about cultural signifiers, aesthetics, and branding.


Given all this, it's especially baffling that in Judoon in Chains, the Sixth Doctor mentions that the brain of a Judoon could fit in a tablespoon, talks about how unintelligent they are, and, as demonstration, says that they use a “monosyllabic, completely analytic language”. This is lesser-known because linguistics just didn't make the same splash in popular culture as phrenology, but it's as if they had their protagonist announce that an alien is inferior and appeal to their skull shape.

This kind of thing, trying to link syntax and morphology to intelligence, was part of the apologia of empire. They'd point at some culture and say “Oh, look, they're speaking an analytical language! That means they're unintelligent and inferior and we can do whatever we like with them!” It's basically the one time I got so mad at a story I wrote the publisher and asked them to, in the future, please avoid recapitulating nonsense from the bad old days when linguistics was the study of why it's okay for Europeans to march into other people's countries, subjugate the people, and extract wealth from them.

While not directly related, it did rather strike me that while their attempts to be political and progressive don't even rise to the standard of being political, they could get this stuff out the door, which actually is political and actually contains misinformation that's been used to justify bigotry given as fact, without someone going “Hey, maybe we should check our protagonist doesn't sound like an apologist for the opium wars.”

In summary: I would like it very much if Big Finish Productions would actually be political, be progressive, and do it well.

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