The Phantom of the Cineplex: Doctor Who is Snuff Porn!

Doctor Who is basically snuff porn.  I don’t say that lightly and I’m not using a wide gauge to measure.  I understand that there are many other shows in that vein in which the viewer can  expect to see character death used as a major story telling element.  Death, itself, is a primary color in the palate that the story writer must occasionally use to paint the picture of narrative.  After all, Star Trek resorted to color coding an entire class of disposable people to help viewers manage their emotional investment in a dangerous universe and Star Wars was willing to kill folks by the planetload to demonstrate just how bad the “bad guys” were.  But red shirts and Alderaneans not withstanding, those other programs did not normalize death nor seek to desensitize the audience to death, and they certainly did not expect to illicit positive emotional responses from the viewing public by doing the very worst sorts of things to the most innocent and undeserving.

It is constructive, at this point, to define and describe the very thing concerned:  Snuff Porn is a type of salacious fiction (hopefully) which, like all forms of pornography, appeals to a private and secretly entertained interest the fulfillment of which produces short-term (quasisexual) enjoyment in pursuit of long-term gratification, but which does so with depictions of life-loss and life-taking.  Often, the gulf which separates mere enjoyment from final gratification is not bridged in a single experience and this mirrors the frustration of satisfying a longing to revisit a past experience of any new and unexpected pleasure which is, in truth, the experience of both the original sensation and the “newness” of it itself.  Because of this, the content of pornography is typically the resultant product of the market effort to fulfill consumer hunger for sensations both old and new, where “old” is the recollected experience which informs the subject matter and the “new” usually some more pure and distilled component of the past experience which will allow the mind to paradoxically re-experience the original sensation with its original “newness” again.

It should be expected, therefore, that consumers of snuff porn, just like the consumers of other varieties of pornography, will often proceed and descend through a downward spiral of pursuing increasingly provocative and graphic material, “old, but new” as the mind becomes desensitized to “old, old”.  Just as all heavy consumers of hard pornography began to accumulate their consumer history with the occasional (and perfectly healthy, natural) viewing of the naked sex, consumers of snuff porn will generally first observe death in the camera frame of accident or war, within which context death is not presented as even remotely enjoyable, but eventually proceed through a coarsening of the senses to finally arrive at a developed appetite for genuinely CELEBRATORY killing.  To achieve this final and ultimate form, all non-moral and non-utilitarian motivation must be vacated from the premises of the both the actor and the observer.  In other words, it results in the sort of entertainment in which the aim is “doing the very worst sorts of things to the most innocent and undeserving”, as stated in the first paragraph above.

The observation of this pattern and the recognition of a spectrum of appetites are useful for the determination of what, exactly, constitutes snuff.  Just as any argument about the subjectivity of temperature is ultimately framed by the objective extremities of heat and cold, any question of the essentially pornographic quality of a depiction of death becomes more certain or settled in approaching or reaching an absolute extreme beyond which (if there is a ‘beyond’) there can be no further doubt in the matter.   Say what one will about whether it is a cold day in November in Michigan, subjectively, there is objectively no dispute that 0 degrees Kelvin is cold everywhere in the whole universe.  Likewise, in order to determine whether Doctor Who is objectively snuff porn, it is first necessary to identify its extremities and show that these instances are, indeed, celebratory killings of undeserving innocents, presented for the satisfaction of those who find enjoyment in such things.

To develop this argument from an agreeable premise, it is firstly useful to cite an instance within the program history of the show for which there can be no reasonable dispute that the depicted killing was presented as an enjoyable entertainment, but from which is removed any suggestion (on show writer’s part) of either of the remaining qualifiers (undeserving innocence), just to exemplify a genuine demonstration of spirited killing.  The most ready-handed and obvious example of this is the on-screen murder of the fictional leader of The United States, President Winters, who is clearly an analogue for George W. Bush, in episode twelve of the third season (or “series” as Welsh BBC calls them), entitled “The Sound of Drums”.  The then-current president was much hated in the British press and roundly despised in the BBC itself and, in that character’s final moments, this substitute was depicted as unconsciously boorish and buffoonish, a perfect manifestation of the Beeb hivemind’s estimation of the real person.  Just as any strawman is (in Aristotilian terms) materially caused by facsimile modeling and finally caused for the purpose of destruction, so too was the character of President Winters meant to represent George Bush and be served up for slaughter, almost as if the writing staff for the show were attempting to practice sympathetic magic against the man.  It is perfectly clear, in the directorial tone of the episode, that the showrunners not only enjoyed their little ritual sacrifice, they presented it in an environment in which such delight was permitted to, and even expected from, the viewing audience.  This was a celebratory killing, but the victim was certainly not depicted as undeserving.

Instances of horrific killing of innocents are absolutely ubiquitous throughout the show’s history, but examples of presumably enjoyable occasions of undeserved death are VERY easy to find in the later seasons of the program’s revival.  Practically every episode makes an exhibition of remorselessly slaughtering the innocent and any attempt to isolate an instance for examination is actually frustrated the sheer volume of character death.  One event, however, that is useful for this argument is an occasion in episode twelve of series eight, entitled “Death in Heaven”, in which the character “Missy” (apparently a guise of the Master) escapes the custody of Earth-bound authorities.  This scene is convenient because it is searchable and can be referenced on Youtube, and because the comment section provided below the video demonstrates the way that the intended fandom receives it.  The incidental and non-incidental deaths occurring in the course of her escape demonstrate both the devaluation of human life (even in the dying characters’ own eyes) and the celebratory element of the enjoyable killing of an innocent.  In this typically poorly written scene, Missy begins her enjoyment of the upcoming thrill-kill by mocking the most innocent and non-threatening character on the killing floor with a countdown to her eventual demise.  In a flurry of absolute nonsense camera direction, Missy inexplicably escapes her bounds, offhandedly kills two unresponsive guards who do not even bother to defend themselves (for they seem to know their purpose in the greater scheme of things), and captures her intended sacrifice.  In a moment which greatly resembles a lesbian domination scene, Missy extracts from her prey the sort of pleading that a dominatrix would enjoy from her ‘bottom’ and, with a suggestion of orgasmic ecstasy, utterly destroys her helpless victim as she begs for her life.  She afterward even describes the experience as “yummy”.  The YouTube comment section for this video explodes with praise and approval of the scene, the attendant fandom resoundingly voicing their love for the Missy character.

By the standard established previously in the killing of the President Winters character, this too was a celebratory killing, but differs significantly in that the victim was murdered without the slightest suggestion that it was a deserved fate.  It was clearly presented as a thrill-kill for the indulgence of a receptive audience.  It compares well to a scene from an original  Grand Guignol fantasmagoria.  Nearly every episode of the series after Eccleston’s departure from the show contains at least one moment like this.

Consider, in comparison, the treatment of character death and killing in another franchise which features plenty of both, but which easily escapes the snuff porn label, the Die Hard movie series.  In these films, there are a great many depictions of death.  Innocent people are killed by the plane-load, and many of the principle character deaths are crafted to be delightful for the audience to witness.  But there is no overlap in these two categories.  In those movies, the deaths of undeserving innocents are clearly presented as horrible tragedies and moral crimes and are used to develop audience resentment toward the evildoers so that the eventual death of each villain can be thoroughly enjoyed for the justness of their fate.  Those movies morally sort their character deaths correctly.  The stories within those films are not considered morally perverse because there is no inversion of normal society’s moral order.

A necessary component of the snuff genre is the essential disposability of humanity and, perhaps, the most telling and disturbing example of Doctor Who’s casual human disposability is found in its most widely panned episode “Love and Monsters”, featuring the Abzorbaloff, in episode ten of series two.    In this episode, viewers are treated to a veritable “feast of the flesh” as an extraterrestrial horrifically consumes members of the Doctor’s cultish fan club (I kid you not!), eventually reducing them to the romantically linked male and female protagonists of the story (Moffat let some heteroes slip through).   Death does not come quickly to the prey of the alien predator, as its victims suffer a period of gradual loss of personality and identity as they are slowly merged into the gestalt being.  The episode ends with the Doctor, for purely dramatic effect, choosing to intervene just as the creature is about to eat the male lead, his girlfriend having just been absorbed into its body.  It is left unclear just for how long the Doctor had been aware of the killings, but it is perfectly obvious that he had been monitoring the final feeding and had allowed the girl to be consumed.  It also becomes apparent that, not only could he have still recovered her had he acted sooner to do so, but that his timing and his purpose was to impress his own very prognathic girlfriend.

chimp

It is finally revealed that the Abzorbaloff could have been defeated at any time by destroying the device which prevented his own absorption into Earth’s biomass.  In an uncharacteristic effort at acting, David Tennant successfully communicates the Doctor’s pure contempt for the alien’s victims as he watches them melt into the ground, a look of utter disgust on his face.  The Doctor’s parting gift to the survivor; his girlfriend’s living face merged with a paving stone, leaving her to suffered her now immortal fate for all eternity.  In other words, she suffers the EXACT SAME FATE that those bound to Rassilon’s tomb (as seen in the “Five Doctors” special) must endure — a curse far worse than death.  This Doctor, without a care, abandons this poor girl to the very undeath from which he himself had recoiled in terror when promised immortality by Rassilon.  What a dick!

This disinterest in the suffering of common folk is made more apparent by the contrast with his very different treatment of his favored (pet) humans.  Compare the treatment of the poor girl above with his reaction to the loss of the revolting Donna Noble character in the episode “Silence In The Library” (eighth episode of the fourth series), in which that loud-mouthed hag is absorbed into the library’s operating system, leaving only her face on a plinth as the last vestige of her former person.  He moves proverbial Heaven and Earth to recover her full form and personality from that situation even though it nearly perfectly parallels the eventual fate of others for whom he gave not one iota of concern.  In the Doctor’s view, it was Donna’s affiliation with himself that made her life valuable and worth saving — a principle he demonstrated earlier in the episode “Fires of Pompeii” (second episode of the fourth series) in which the same Katherine Tate character asks the Doctor to save Peter Capaldi’s character (uh, whoa) from hellacious death-by-volcano, only to be essentially told that, as a support character in the story of HIS own life, the Pompeiian’s fate was already determined (which claim is later revealed to be false).

But perhaps the single best example of the Doctor’s complete disregard for the value of human life is found in episode four of the sixth series, entitled “The Doctor’s Wife”, which is both surprising and disappointing to me because this is Matt Smith’s Doctor working from Neil Gaimen’s script.  In the very opening scene for this installment, we see a poor housemaid, Idris (because that has ALWAYS been a woman’s name) being led like a lamb to the slaughter by two remorseless accomplices to murder.  After asking if must be she who is sacrificed for some greater purpose, she is mocked and told that she will suffer..  When she asks what will happen to her, she is very nonchalantly informed that her mind and very soul are to be discarded and when she says she is scared, she is dismissively told “I’d expect so, dear”.  When the Doctor meets the animated body of Idris, now possessed by the spirit of the Tardis, he is ELATED that this has happened and shows no remorse or concern for the poor victim.  He instantly recognizes that what has happened benefits him personally and is actually grateful for the moral crime.  Only when the physical form of the woman dissolves into pure light and the last vestige of Idris is finally, mercifully released from the world does he become sad, but his sorrow is only for his own personal loss.  The life, mind, and soul of the poor housemaid held NO importance to him whatsoever.  The whole tone of the show, through both character action and language and through the directorial style of the episode, suggests a strong sense of human devaluation and genuine misanthropy from both Gaimen and the showrunners, who seem to also expect the favorable reception of the audience.  Even the murderous conspirators of this story display a near complete disinterest in their own impending demise once their utility to the lead antagonist is spent — so what was their motivation, again?  Moffat’s Whovian universe is populated not only with the sort of people willing to kill to live, but folks willing to kill and then just die anyway.

This notion of human disposability is not limited to those who are fated or known to court death, even very driven and powerful characters, those with a developed sense of self-importance, sometimes just throw their lives away.  Yvonne Hartman, the director of Torchwood Institute from the thirteenth episode of series two (entitled “Doomsday”), hardly needed any encouragement to walk right into a Cyberman conversion chamber even after hearing the painful wails of the vivisected victims.  Witnessing the procedure herself, she pulls free from her escort and insists on going to her doom on her own terms, and instantly gets dismembered one step out of frame.  In retrospect, the whole effort to convert the human population to slowly stomping Cybermen depended upon the sheep-like compliance of people who never attempted to run away.

This willingness to lay down one’s life or to throw oneself into the jaws of death is bizarrely commonplace in the Whoverse.  Strangely, this character trait is almost solely found among the seeming good and supposed innocent and contrasts strongly with the portrayal of evildoers who cling to life.  The common morality of this fictional universe seems to actually impose an obligation TO DIE.  And while the Doctor’s inner circle of pet people are entitled to struggle for life, any non-members caught avoiding death-duty can usually be assumed to be bad guys.  In truth, the only explanation for the behavior of much of this population is that many or most seem to understand that it is their function and fate to die for the entertainment of unseen spectators.  “Pork chops”, as they are called in the snuff genre.  The normalization of death, mentioned in the opening, is fully achieved.

Really, the only show which truly surpasses Doctor Who for carnage entertainment is Lexx, which murdered whole universes of people in an absurdist surplus, keeping with its ultimately fatalistic themes of cyclical light and darkness, death and rebirth.  But in Lexx, we see that everyone who dies either lives on in some Platonic sense or else is literally reincarnated whereas ‘Who flatly denies the existence of any metaphysical truth or Ideal Realm and, instead, recasts demons and angels as misunderstood aliens and explains away the afterlife as a Matrix-like experience.  Death in the Time Lord’s universe offers the innocent sufferer no promise of reward beyond momentary release and any afterlife one might naively hope to achieve is gonna suuuuck!

Knowing that any reader possessing enough interest in the titled subject is likely inclined to disagree with my interpretation, I ask only that the skeptics ask themselves the following questions after watching the typical episode of Doctor Who:  Was there either a gratuitous amount of death or a particularly ghastly death in this installment?  Did the show writers have the surviving characters react in a morally correct and mentally healthy way to that death?  Did the director and other showrunners seem to expect a positive audience response to that death?   Was the nature of that death a necessary part of the narrative without which the story could not be told?  If so, what sort of gruesome story would depend on such a death or, if not, why would such a gratuity become so commonplace as to be expected from the program.  Are you ever bothered by the number or forms of death depicted?  If you ask yourselves these questions honestly and answer sincerely and still do not believe that there is something seriously wrong with Doctor Who, then perhaps I am still right and you have merely been desensitized to death, as I claim in the first paragraph.

If I have failed to convince, please consider the following observation and attempt to reconcile any lingering doubts:  There is a scene from the 1976 gore film “Blood Sucking Freaks” (which I hope all will agree is snuff porn) in which a malpracticing physician drills a hole in a woman’s head through which he then drinks her cerebral fluid with a straw.  This scene was crafted to depict an act so depraved that even the principal villains of the movie (kidnappers, slavers, torturers, and murderers) are disgusted and kill him in moral outrage.  And yet, with the right musical overlays and background sound effects to establish the familiar ‘Who ambiance, this clip, isolated from the rest of the film (with its gratuitous nudity) could easily be passed off as original Doctor Who material to fans familiar with only the more modern incarnation of the show.  The program has not only degenerated to the point that such a scene would not look out of place, but would fit right in with what the showrunners would use to appeal to the now-expected appetite of the viewership.

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