Pray You Undo This Button – My thoughts on Children of Earth

No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

King Lear, Act V


I’m about to leave for Stratford again and a two-week summer school looking at Shakespeare’s sources, that vast primordial soup of myth and culture he drew from to write his plays. The majority of stories he dipped in and caught up were refashioned almost beyond recognition. And at the height of his powers, with literary London and a mass audience in the palm of his hand, he wrote King Lear, the bleakest and most chaotic of all his tragedies.

He could have undone the button. Made it all come out all right. By the time the audience got to Act Five and the death of Cordelia, they’d had more than enough. Why ramp up the angst? What was going through his mind? What useful purpose did it serve?

Maybe he just did it because he could. Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything in particular, or he felt he had nothing to say because the world was a cruel and random place. Or he couldn’t resist seeing his audience, horrified but riveted, reacting to the spectacle of such elemental human agony.

A writer at the height of his influence is a very, very powerful person. And we all know power corrupts.

So, having said all that, why do we watch drama? Or, for that matter, experience any work of art? I don’t see the need to make some kind of cultural distinction between the “high culture” of Shakespeare and the “popular culture” of Children of Earth. The Doctor, taking the longer view, wouldn’t do that, and neither do I. If Will was around today, he’d be writing for the telly, because he craved the dialogue with a mass audience, above all.

Writers generally set out with something to say. When young, it’s probably fair to generalise that many of us assume that the world is run by liars, hypocrites and cheats, and that the more of the truth we expose, the better and more moral our work will be. But there’s a problem with that. Maybe people can’t bear too much unvarnished truth. When we watch drama, we tend to be looking for an emotional equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics being reversed. The statement that the entropy of the universe is constantly increasing, that we live in the shadow of irreversible decay, is very bleak indeed. That is why most satisfying dramas move towards the restoration of order, tragedies included. There does not necessarily need to be a happy ending, but we do look for resolution, a pattern, a coherent narrative or, at the very least, the hope that lessons will be learned and the horror we have seen enacted will be avoided in future.

Children of Earth
apparently gave us none of those things. We don’t even know for sure that the 456, or similar threats, have been banished. The day was saved, again, but at horrible cost, and who can be trusted? Not Jack, our hero, for certain. He did the least worst thing, given the big picture. Intellectually, on the evidence of sheer numbers, it was a happy ending, with the worst disaster averted. But it doesn’t make us feel good, and that won’t be what stays in our mind.

Scenes of grief and angst touch something absolutely elemental within us, particularly if children are involved. It is against our deepest instincts to know we will outlive our offspring, yet that is the price of immortality. From this position it could be argued that mankind is not meant to be immortal. In that sense, TW/DW is as stark a universe as the Greek tragedies ever inhabited. Rose Tyler’s act, which we tend to see as the apogee of selfless love, is a profound and dangerous hubris, an inversion of the natural order of things that cannot, under any circumstances, lead to good. It’s as serious as bumping off Duncan or deposing Richard II, God’s anointed King with all his faults.

Shakespeare lived in a moral universe that valued order very highly indeed. The terrible cost of disturbing it resonates through all his histories and tragedies. It cannot, must not, come to good. King Lear is the ultimate expression of this chaos and dislocation, the closest he came to depicting the complete social breakdown that RTD et al wanted to dramatise.

When we’re young, we truly and probably correctly believe we must continually chip away at the walls of tradition, of accepted rules and codes of behaviour. It’s vital and necessary, and it’s how change happens. Without it we’d be condemned to slavery, fundamentalism, hate-crimes and God alone knows what else.

But there’s a question of balance involved. As Tevye said, in Fiddler on the Roof:

One little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop? Where does it stop?

It is highly possible that it’s better for us not to know too much. That’s the virtue of propaganda. The end does sometimes justify the means. The universe is a cruel, brutal and chaotic place. There are many moral dilemmas where only the least worst solution is possible. Hope? There isn’t any, not really. Standing up to the enemy against suicidal odds may give us a brief moment of glory, but if we don’t crumple at the first serious threat to our loved ones, we’re condemned as monsters. It’s not a very comfortable scenario. And we revolt against it in many cases, to the point of ripping apart writers who kill off our favoured characters in a Bacchic frenzy or frankly denying that the writer’s chosen outcome should be the last word on the subject.

Perhaps we’re right to do so. There comes a point in our lives, for many of us as middle age advances, when we start to feel that the primary function of any work of art is to give us hope. Hope becomes more important than stark realism because without it we can’t go on. We do actually need the illusion that some power, some providence is essentially in control. The sight of seeing a human forced into making Godlike choices and having to live with them, a Jack Harkness or a Tenth Doctor, is simply too painful.

And I think we might be right.

Shakespeare’s last plays were, even by his own time’s standards, ludicrously improbable. He knew that himself, and he didn’t care. He actually broke the fourth wall, calling one of them A Winter’s Tale and having his characters say on stage that they’re unbelievable. They are, but beneath the ridiculous plots lies a story of reconciliation and hope that is absolutely fundamental to our spiritual and mental health.

He was old enough by then not to care what clever, cynical people thought of him. So he pressed the button.

I don’t think RTD has got there yet. I hope he will. There’s a reason why we tell old tales, participating in the drama of them even as we recognise their impossibility.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

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21 thoughts on “Pray You Undo This Button – My thoughts on Children of Earth

  1. There comes a point in our lives, for many of us as middle age advances, when we start to feel that the primary function of any work of art is to give us hope.
    Whilst dogged by the creeping fear that we’re running up against the fundamental truth of art being a lie.

  2. I find it funny then that the Victorians essentially wrote fix-it fic for King Lear, in their day. For decades, that was the version that people saw, with its happy ending.
    My professor taught us Lear, my freshman year of college. And he left it up to us what the final question of the play was. But it might be, he suggested, forcing the audience to think about things they had rather not, like why bad things happen to good people and where hope is in the end.
    I think people forget how improbable the Doctor and his actions are. He’s the Doctor, he can do anything! But by removing this improbability, taking away the balance, people are forced to see what may be an uncomfortable view of their world. Isn’t it great to think the Doctor will come save us all? But that’s not how it works, they say on occasion, showing us in fiction so improbable and so very real that the governments and the lives we lead are tenuous fragile things, that sometimes loss comes that overshadows all order, etc.
    Possibly why people are directing such anger towards RTD right now. I’m willing to bet ol’ Will got much the same WTF reaction, after King Lear ‘aired’.
    And, yes, Shakespeare would absolutely be a telly writer.

  3. This was thoughtful, compelling and well-written. As a grumpy old broad myself (53 going on 54) I understand what you are saying, even if I may come to a few different conclusions. Might I link to this?

  4. Well, yes. It’s clear from some of the things he’s said in interviews that that was precisely the effect RTD intended. I thought CoE was painful but brilliant. I don’t get furious about Ianto’s death or anything like that – I accept that shit happens. If I do have a problem with it, it’s that I’m finding its linkage to the DW ‘verse increasingly unsustainable and I’d be interested to see how/if he resolves that. The two have a very different tone. That’s probably a good thing.

  5. Which then forces us to do the thing that only humans can do – turn the art into truth, and thereby force ourselves to be better than we are (says the woman who avoids a great deal of television and motion picture art because she knows how much death the world generates, and doesn’t need to see it on her screen.)

  6. It’s resolving the universe of the tragedy and the comedy. The one where everyone dies, and where no one dies.
    Which is where, I think, you get the problem plays. A Winter’s Tale, the Tempest–the reconciliation of tragedy and comedy. Worlds of altered balance, altered power, but with some kind of happy ending nonetheless. It’s interesting, then, that, as you pointed out, A Winter’s Tale is the one that says ‘these are inherently unbelievable, works of fiction; believe anyway’.
    Which is, just maybe, what speculative fiction in general attempts to do. There might not be aliens running around, or magic in the air, and we’ll plainly say that’s unbelievable. Believe in the themes anyway. Which so much of SF/F is pushed aside as ‘not lit’, when, really, it deals with some of the themes and issues most important and central to humanity. Which is sad.
    (On a side note: Can I just say that I love having someone on my flist to nerd about Shakespeare with?)

  7. Nerd away! There are a few of us out there, you know.
    Whatever my personal views, I’m delighted by the response and audience figures we’ve seen for CoE in the UK this week. It shows that there is still an appetite for intelligent drama and that SF has begun to shed its geeky connotations and become accepted by the mainstream.
    I like the term “speculative fiction” and it could indeed apply to any period. Another aspect of Shakespeare’s plays we see parallelled in TW is the alternative universe that allows free rein to comment on our own – Shakespeare did exactly that in setting “Measure for Measure” notionally in Vienna, but filling it with comments about sexual politics back home. There are numerous other examples.

  8. Yes, and for that I am grateful.
    It’s great! I’m glad people are realizing that the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘pop’ culture is a lot more blurred than people thought. One can textually analyze Doctor Who (in fact, I’ve essayed on it before), but I think people are slowly realizing that SF is deserving of some respect, as art–as with any other genre.
    Speculative Fiction is a term that has gained popularity in the last few years, spurred by the blurring between SF and fantasy, and the fact that an ‘alternate history’ novel won the Hugo award last year (among other things). I like the fact that it’s so broad, and manages to encompass all aspects of ‘what if the world was different in this way?’. It also helps books like Enchantress From the Stars (both SF and Fantasy, at points) find a comfortable place in the literary lineage.
    Shakespeare fits in there very neatly, yes, since so many of his plays take existing concepts or events and gives them a ‘what if’ twist. King Lear and Cordelia’s death being a prime example.

  9. There comes a point in our lives, for many of us as middle age advances, when we start to feel that the primary function of any work of art is to give us hope.
    YES. Speaking as a middle-aged woman working on raising the next generation while trying to help the previous one through the end of life, YES. And yet I don’t ask that every piece of drama show me hope. I can engage in the darkness when there is a moral compass somewhere within it — even if the main theme is the lack of a moral compass, as long as the lack is felt and the question is asked, what happens to our humanity in its absence? But drama that is nihilistic for its own sake strikes me as unsatisfying at best, self-indulgent at worst.
    (came via , btw.)

  10. This was thought-provoking and sensitive. And, I must say, a nice change from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth I’ve been hearing. (And as soon as I remember how to add something to my memory file it’s going in there. sigh*)
    Well-done.

  11. Interesting that you mention your age. I have a feeling that nihilistic drama becomes less attractive as one ages (I’m 50 by the way). Hope=meaning – which doesn’t necessarily preclude tragedy.
    What bothers me most is when happiness is portrayed simply to add to the emotional power of knocking it down – which, it’s becoming increasingly clear – is what RTD did with the Doctor and Rose’s relationship. I could deal with the Doctor moving on with happy memories, regardless of his grief. But he continues to wallow in increasingly self-inflicted angst. I’m losing sympathy for him.
    (Sorry not to respond sooner – I’ve been away.)

  12. Thank you. I have been gnashing my teeth in select company as well. But meta seems to be my way of dealing with things. Sorry not to reply sooner but I’ve been away on holiday.

  13. Re: In the midst of death, we are in life
    That’s lovely. The more I think about it, the more I feel that Jack left at least partly because TW is incompatible with family life and he never wants Gwen and Rhys to have to make the kind of choices he’s had to make.

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