Launching a Substack for Fun, Profit, Daleks

Hi all, just a quick post to say I’m launching a Substack.

You can find it at https://williamshaw.substack.com/

This is where you’ll find my review of the upcoming Doctor Who New Year’s Day Special Revolution of the Daleks, as well as coverage of new shows like Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal and the second series of The Demon Headmaster. Everything you need to know is in the initial post, which you can find here.

If you’ve enjoyed the material I’ve posted here, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Come and subscribe, and I’ll see you in 2021.

The Demon Headmaster: Agitprop for Kids

This article first appeared in Imperica Magazine, Issue 6, July/August 2020.

It is a cliché, when discussing children’s media, to vaunt its supposed maturity in comparison to adult media. Obviously, the 2019 CBBC version of The Demon Headmaster, created by Emma Reeves from the books by Gillian Cross, is firmly pitched at children rather than adult leftist bloggers. It is, after all, a show about plucky kids whose school is controlled by an evil hypnotist with plans to take over the country (or at least the country’s schools). But once we observe that this version of the Demon Headmaster is heading up a new academy chain, drenched in PR-speak and private sector involvement, and patrolled by a fleet of surveillance drones, it is clear that the show is informed by a wider political context. By the time a protagonist is snapped out of her hypnosis with a thinly-veiled Extinction Rebellion logo, declares “to each according to their needs,” and is met with “Warning! Unsustainable market model!” by a passing drone, the show’s political stance is screamingly clear. It is also clear that you are watching a work of genius.

From a production standpoint, the 2019 Demon Headmaster is superlative children’s television. Emma Reeves et al’s scripting is precise and satisfying, with each half-hour episode introducing a new facet of the demonic school, creating engaging sub-plots for individual characters, and developing the wider scenario. Our young protagonists — Lizzie, Tyler, Ethan, Angelika, and Blake — are engaging and well-drawn, with interpersonal differences as well as differences in approach and priorities which lead to natural conflicts even as they all pursue the same goals.

The details of the Headmaster’s regime are appealingly nasty and distressingly plausible. In the first episode we are introduced to Hazelbrook Academy, where “every student is a star.” The Headmaster has created what Reeves calls “a mindless, slogan-chanting cult of loyalty,” with a pseudo-police force of student “welcomers” and regular addresses via Orwellian television screens. Philip Curran’s unsettling score creates an atmosphere of cold wrongness throughout the series, and directors John McKay and Jonathan Fox Bassett make effective use of locations, frequently shooting the school’s towering glass edifices from low angles, the protagonists dwarfed by these remorseless embodiments the Headmaster’s regime.

The Headmaster himself is a thoroughly ghoulish figure. Flanked by teachers and “welcomers,” he is frequently shown giving aggressive speeches like an Ofsted-approved dictator. But for all his steeliness there is something unearthly about him. Scenes will play out in a seemingly innocuous manner, only for him to suddenly appear, as if teleporting to wherever there is trouble in the school. Actor Nicholas Gleaves towers over the younger cast members, and the direction takes frequent advantage of this, having him speak from elevated stages or filming him from the neck downwards, the protagonists gazing up into an inscrutable face.

Gleaves’ performance is perhaps the scariest element of the show. His Headmaster radiates a barely suppressed rage, and seems liable to explode into violence at any moment. His oft-repeated slogans (“Control. Command. Conquer.” “Routine. Order. Restraint.”) are overtly fascistic, despite (or because of) their obvious debt to corporate motivational speaking. In an interview with Sci-Fi Bulletin, Gleaves compares the Headmaster with the definitive hero of British children’s television:

“I think this is the heart of the character we’ve created: he is a dark Doctor Who. He’s the polar opposite of a life-giving, enabling magician; he’s a dark magician that will take absolutely every attribute you have and bend it for his own selfish means… That character really does live in the psyche of every school child. There is a dark judge and a person at the back of every kid’s brain that is telling them what to do and is downright unfair.”

All of which is grist to the show’s political concerns, chief among which are the failings of academy schools. In 2010 the Conservative-led coalition government passed a new Academies Act, which enabled all state schools in England to become academies. The law allowed central government to fund schools rather than local authorities, which in turn meant schools were beholden to fewer regulations around curriculum and staffing. In practice, this meant taking oversight away from local authorities, staff, and parents, and giving it to what Michael Rosen has called “an archipelago of individuals, trusts, charities, educational institutions and companies.” Academy chains, single organisations managing multiple schools, proliferated in the new system, and by the start of 2019 nearly half of all state-educated pupils in England went to academy schools.

The academy system has come in for harsh criticism over the past decade. Some have called the removal of local authority control undemocratic; others have pointed out the heightened expense of academy schools compared to those overseen by local authorities. More garish, and thus better suited to children’s shows about magical supervillains, have been the stories of corruption and mismanagement. The lack of oversight from local authorities and staff led to inordinate amounts of power being concentrated in the hands of head teachers and chief executives. Many used their schools to further their own private business interests, or else simply pocketed public money, as consultancy fees or even outright fraud.

Prominent examples include Sir Greg Martin, who as head of the Durand Academy in London earned over £400,000 a year from business assets on the school site, including a dating agency, and Sajid Raza, Shabana Hussain, and Daud Khan, who defrauded the government out of £150,000 while setting up the Kings Science Academy in Bradford. There have also been a number of scandals around academy chains, such as the Bright Tribe Trust, which allegedly received government grants for building work which was never completed, and was subsequently referred to the City of London’s fraud squad. Small wonder that in 2017 Gillian Cross told the New Statesman that “obviously the Headmaster would love to have an academy chain.”

Cross was speaking to the New Statesman about her new book, Total Control, a reboot of the Demon Headmaster book series after 15 years, and the primary inspiration for the 2019 television version. Described as “a tale of dystopian academisation,” the book was inspired by Cross’s “conversations with teachers, parents and pupils over the years,” which made her “furious about the government’s interference in our education system.”

In Total Control, Hazelbrook Academy is characterised by a kind of market-centric philistinism. The school has a coffee bar, maintained by the deputy head’s daughter Angelika at a profit (“‘You mean — it’s like a business?’ Tyler said. ‘In school?'”). This aspect is maintained in the show, where we are explicitly told that the hypnotised Angelika is “making a massive profit off the school.” This observation echoes David Harvey’s characterisation of neoliberalism as the “monetisation of everything.” The market-dominated worldview of Hazelbrook Academy is shown to actively impede the protagonists’ education, most chillingly when the Headmaster hypnotises Lizzie into saying that “Reading has nothing to do with pleasure.” For Cross, the neoliberal focus on commerce at the expense of personal development or imagination, enabled by a corrupt and profit-driven institutional structure, is at the heart of the Headmaster’s evil: “He [the Demon Headmaster] has the possibility of turning out the workforce that the country requires, which he sees as blatantly the purpose of education.”

The 2019 show seizes on this aspect of the novel, and explicitly ties it to the development of academy chains under Conservative-led governments. A pivotal scene comes in episode four, where the gang eavesdrops on a meeting between the headmaster and a set of “academy sponsors.” The Headmaster states that:

“This is the system we want to roll out to other schools as we launch the Hazelbrook academy chain… Whatever your business model requires, Hazelbrook can provide it. From a simple janitor to a rocket scientist. Our system ensures a supply of motivated, contented workers, who will obey your commands without question.”

All fairly blunt, but the brilliance of this scene is in what it doesn’t do. It is established in episode one that the Headmaster only hypnotises people when he takes off his glasses. In this scene, although he is visibly tempted when one investor asks an awkward question, his glasses stay resolutely on. The businessmen buy into a system for producing hypnotised worker drones entirely on its own merits. As Angelika puts it, “I guess some people don’t need to be hypnotised.” This is clearly a scene written with an awareness of the larger debate surrounding academy chains, but Reeves describes the refinement of this scene to focus on the capitalist worldview more broadly:

“it was always in the script that the Headmaster doesn’t need to hypnotise the Academy Sponsors, but in the original draft they were simply in it for the money – they were excited by the Headmaster’s promise of exclusive supply deals with every school in Britain. After discussions at the page turn we added an additional motivation – they were still interested in money, but in the final draft the Headmaster promises to supply his capitalist allies with contented, obedient workers who will be perfectly trained in the exact numbers to match skills gaps, and who will always obey orders.”

Where Total Control leaves much of its political critique to implication, the show is appealingly upfront in its repudiation of the neoliberal academy chain.

As well as addressing the problems head-on, the 2019 Demon Headmaster is appealingly direct in its proposed solutions. Earlier in episode four, we see Angelika’s aforementioned deprogramming. Rooting through her purse, she happens upon an old badge for a protest group called “Defiance Against Destruction,” with a logo clearly modelled on the one for Extinction Rebellion. She has flashbacks to her pre-Headmaster life as an environmental protester, including a Pride flag emblazoned with the word “RESIST” and a sign saying “I’m with her” alongside a picture of planet Earth. The idea of environmentalism and LGBTQ+ political struggle as the key to overcoming the Headmaster’s indoctrination is intensely appealing, and is underlined when Angelika identifies the Headmaster’s drone as a “tool of the oppressor.”

The contemporary political references come to a head later in the episode, as the Headmaster meets a group of protesters, one of whom throws a milkshake at him. According to Reeves:

“The original script for this scene called for the protesting mob to throw the traditional eggs and flour at the Headmaster – but as we entered production, throwing milkshakes became the fashionable way to challenge fascists, so the scene was amended accordingly.”

There is an insistence throughout the show on its applicability to contemporary politics. We are not merely shown our heroes resisting an authoritarian teacher; we are invited to contextualise it in the political struggle going on outside our windows. For a children’s programme to openly advocate political protest in 2019 is both unexpectedly radical and an unalloyed public good.

However, from here the show takes a less exciting turn. Episode six has the gang investigating the Headmaster online, and discovering a mysterious abandoned school hiding the key to a grander conspiracy. The show eventually reveals itself to be a stealth sequel to the original Demon Headmaster novels and their previous TV adaptation from the late 1990s. The former hero, Dinah Hunter, returns as an adult MI6 agent, and in the final episode Gleaves’ Headmaster becomes an overt stooge to Terrence Hardiman’s original, who turns out to have been secretly behind everything.

While the later episodes are fun, with an effective escalation of tension as Dinah approaches and then betrays the gang, the continuity parade bears a faint whiff of disappointment. It works dramatically; the reveal that Lizzie and Tyler’s mother is one of the original Headmaster’s victims/accomplices is one of the show’s most effective gut punches. It even works within the wider political critique; neoliberalism is largely a product of the 1980s and 90s, so to have our protagonists haunted by the pop culture of that period is clever in the abstract. But fundamentally, the show is more interesting when it’s about rebelling against drab market authoritarianism by connecting with contemporary social movements than when it’s about being a sequel to a twenty-four-year-old piece of television most of the target audience won’t have seen.

But continuity aside, it is gratifying to see a children’s programme so unapologetically political. It’s the kind of programme only the BBC could produce, a last gasp of public service drama from an increasingly beleaguered and underfunded corporation. Mark Fisher observed the irony that the neoliberal free market for television has generally lagged behind the supposed dinosaurs of the post-war consensus:

“It is another irony that capitalism’s ‘society of risk’ is much less likely to take this kind of risk… It was the public service-oriented BBC and Channel 4 that perplexed and delighted me with the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Pinter plays and Tarkovsky seasons… Such innovations are unthinkable now that the public has been displaced by the consumer.”

You would never find a show like this on Disney+. If the BBC can still produce the occasional Demon Headmaster, it might just be worth keeping. Certainly the private sector cannot be relied upon to produce children’s drama of this quality.

The final episode feels particularly pointed. The gang manage to disrupt the Headmaster’s plan to hypnotise the nation via a news broadcast by hijacking the signal with a message of their own:

“Mums, dads, guardians, whoever you are, please listen to your children. And if you don’t have any kids, listen to someone else’s. Also, look at the people in charge, and ask yourself: do they really know better than us? Look into their eyes. Do you really think they care?”

Watching this episode in June 2020, as an openly mendacious government relaxed lockdown despite its own scientists warning it was unsafe, this hit particularly close to home. Especially in an episode first broadcast a mere four days after that government was elected by a landslide.

The Demon Headmaster is not, in itself, a political solution. It will not undo the damage that the Conservative Party and decades of neoliberalism have done to education, the media, or the world as a whole. But it might just encourage a few kids to be that bit more distrustful of authority. To question the men in sharp suits who view them as future workers and nothing more. To fight back, with milkshakes or otherwise, against creeping fascism. Alone it’s not enough, but it is worth celebrating, and the message sent is clear: do try this at home, kids. Before it’s too late.

New Atheism and the Emergence of the Alt-Right

This article first appeared in Imperica Magazine, Issue 4, April/May 2020. Since Imperica is now sadly defunct, I will reupload my articles for it here.

On 16 February 2020, Richard Dawkins tweeted: “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.”

The basic wrongness of this point was extensively litigated on 16 February, to the point where ‘eugenics’ became a trending topic on Twitter. Setting aside the moral issues of indulging this topic in a high-profile forum, the genetic vulnerabilities of selectively-bred species make the notion of eugenics ‘working’ farcical. (Though Dawkins did clarify in follow-up tweets that he thought a “eugenic policy would be bad,” this hardly resolved the issue).

More interesting, and more alarming, is the question of why Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous scientist in Britain, with a reputation for championing rationality and scepticism, was publicly claiming that eugenics would ‘work’. To put it simply, how did we get here?

*

Richard Dawkins has been a public figure since the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976. Since the turn of the millennium, however, he has been most famous as part of the so-called ‘New Atheist’ movement. The term was coined by journalist Gary Wolf in a 2006 Wired article about Dawkins and his fellow “New Atheists,” Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. These writers were joined the following year by Christopher Hitchens, and became known as the ‘Four Horsemen’ of New Atheism after they took part in a roundtable discussion at Hitchens’ home on 30 September 2007. Through their books, articles, and documentaries, they articulated a worldview in which reason and scepticism were under attack from forces of religious dogma and irrationality; atheism was thus a more important political cause than ever before.

The label ‘New Atheism’ is not uncontroversial. Dawkins himself disclaimed it in 2016, writing that “it isn’t clear to me how we differ from old atheists.” To find this out, we must turn to the source. The New Atheist movement arguably began in 2004 with Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. The book opens with an extended description of a suicide bombing by an anonymous young man, after which Harris states:

“These are the facts. This is all we know for certain about the young man. Is there anything else we can infer about him on the basis of his behaviour? Was he popular in school? Was he rich or was he poor? Was he of low or high intelligence? His actions leave no clue at all… Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy – you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy – to guess the young man’s religion?”

To which one is tempted to answer, ‘because you have blatantly played on your readership’s assumed Islamophobia.’ This is how New Atheism differs from ‘old atheism.’ Writing in a post 9/11 context, against the backdrop of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of New Atheism was underpinned by a virulent Islamophobia, existing in and contributing to the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ paradigm that fuelled the War on Terror. This commingled with a more generalised racism towards foreign cultures. Anticipating objections to his point about the suicide bomber, Harris adds a footnote:

‘Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam — the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetrated more acts of suicidal terrorism than any other group… While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death… Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational.”

As well as chronicling the Clash of Civilisations abroad, the New Atheists were often happy to engage in racist scaremongering at home. Dawkins’ 2006 documentary series Root of All Evil? contrasts footage of a Lourdes procession with the ominous voiceover: “But isn’t this the beginning of that slippery slope that leads to young men with rucksack bombs on the tube?” This evokes contemporary paranoia in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, though the contrast of so-called Islamic terror with a Christian ceremony is somewhat baffling.

More straightforward is Christopher Hitchens’ assertion that Muslims are ‘Islamising’ London. In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, ‘Londonistan Calling,’ he asserted that the increased presence of “Algerians, Bangladeshis, and others” had made Finsbury Park into “another country.” These immigrants, according to Hitchens, had “often been the losers in battles against Middle Eastern and Asian regimes which they regard as insufficiently Islamic… they bring these far-off quarrels along with them. And they also bring a religion which is not ashamed to speak of conquest and violence.”

These ideas were not unique to New Atheism. Racism towards immigrants was and is commonplace, and ‘Londonistan’ was a widely-disseminated paranoia, notably in a 2006 book by the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips. But the New Atheists combined this inflammatory rhetoric with an affect of detached empiricism. In his 2006 book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris declares “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” The notion that the New Atheists were disinterestedly recounting the facts lent a rhetorical force to their arguments. It also made them susceptible to the ideas of the far right.

Towards the end of Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris reflects on Europe, and the place of Muslims within it:

“Islam is now the fastest-growing religion in Europe. The birth-rate among European Muslims is three times that of their non-Muslim neighbors. If current trends continue, France will be a majority-Muslim country in twenty-five years — and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.”

Those familiar with the contemporary far right will recognise this as the animating delusion of the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, in which Muslims and/or non-white immigrants are supposedly set to outbreed white people in Europe and North America, and thus dominate society. This conspiracy theory was a noted inspiration for the terrorist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, responsible for the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, who titled his manifesto ‘The Great Replacement.’

The New Atheists are not personally responsible for the despicable acts of Tarrant or the growing number of mass shooters animated by white supremacy. But the ideas of the contemporary alt-right were immanent in much of their work. The implications of this would only become more apparent as the years wore on; as Harris puts it in Letter to a Christian Nation:

“With a few exceptions, the only public figures who have had the courage to speak honestly about the threat that Islam now poses to European society seem to be fascists. This does not bode well for the future of civilization.”

*

Having peaked in 2006/07, New Atheism began winding down as a popular movement. The 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent fallout pushed its concerns down the agenda, and fears of Christianity infecting state institutions waned with the end of the evangelical-influenced Bush administration. The increasingly-evident disaster of the Iraq war also contributed to the movement’s falling-off. Christopher Hitchens was one of the war’s fiercest advocates; his reputation took a severe blow, and with his death in 2011 the movement lost one of its most popular figureheads. The subculture that had informed and responded to New Atheism persisted; secularisation campaigns continued, as did the atheist blogosphere that had sprung up in the late 2000s. But New Atheism’s cultural moment had passed.

The most popular of the surviving ‘horsemen’ was Sam Harris. In 2013 he started a podcast, Waking Up (renamed Making Sense in 2018), which boasts around one million listeners per episode. Harris has frequently been criticised for inviting controversial figures onto his large platform. Most infamously, in 2017 he interviewed Charles Murray, co-author of the notorious 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argues that black people are genetically predetermined to be less intelligent than white people to justify reducing social spending.

Harris was bizarrely uncritical of Murray throughout their over-two-hour conversation, presenting his view of the science as uncontroversial, and Murray himself as the victim of a “moral panic.” This led to a high-profile dust-up the following year between Harris and Vox editor Ezra Klein over the site’s critical coverage, culminating in a podcast debate between the two. When Klein argued that the history of racism in America meant that black people scoring lower on average on IQ tests was more likely to be a result of environmental than genetic factors, Harris retorted that this was “irrelevant.” Precisely how a centuries-long project of enslavement and discrimination could be irrelevant when assessing a group’s performance on intelligence tests, let alone an intellectual project designed to strip government benefits from disadvantaged people, is left as an exercise for the reader.

As New Atheism increasingly faded into cultural memory, its proponents drifted further right. The atheist subculture became increasingly toxic, with allegations of bullying and sexual assault against minor figures compounded by the controversial stances of its major proponents. This prompted a small wave of former New Atheists publicly disavowing the movement. In 2017, Phil Torres wrote in a piece for Salon that the movement had “slid into the alt-right,” that its proponents “apparently don’t give a damn about alienating women and people of color,” and that

“Words that now come to mind when I think of new atheism are ‘un-nuanced,’ ‘heavy-handed,’ ‘unjustifiably confident’ and ‘resistant to evidence’ — not to mention, on the whole, ‘misogynist’ and ‘racist.'”

Popular blogger PZ Myers also denounced the movement in 2019, writing that New Atheism had become “a shambles of alt-right memes and dishonest hucksters mangling science to promote racism, sexism, and bloody regressive politics.”

Later in 2019, Richard Dawkins published a new book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. Explicitly aimed at younger readers, it aimed to challenge the assumptions of religion and explain the basics of evolutionary science. While discussing the Jewish idea of the Promised Land, Dawkins quotes Numbers: “Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” He then responds:

“What? Is that a good motive for going to war? Adolf Hitler in the Second World War justified his invasion of Poland, Russia and other lands to the east by saying that the superior German master race needed Lebensraum, or ‘living space’. And that is exactly what God was urging his own ‘chosen people’ to claim by war.”

To compare the Jewish people to the Nazis in a book published in 2019, let alone one aimed at children, is shocking. It is not only a breathtaking false equivalence, but one unmistakably advantageous to the far right.

*

In 2019, the non-profit Center for Inquiry put out a book version of the 2007 ‘Four Horsemen’ roundtable. Subtitled ‘The Discussion That Sparked An Atheist Revolution,’ it contained a transcript of the original conversation with new introductions by the surviving ‘horsemen’ and Stephen Fry. Listed in the book’s acknowledgements is “CFI intern Andy Ngo.”

Ngo is a right-wing provocateur who rose to prominence peddling Islamophobia (including a widely-criticised Wall Street Journal article, ‘A Visit to Islamic England,’ which trafficked in similar stereotypes to ‘Londonistan Calling’). He is best-known for confrontations with anti-fascist activists in his native Portland, and has been criticised for his shoddy and reckless reporting on their activities. Arun Gupta of Jacobin states that “whoever he turns his camera, social media, or pen on is at significant risk of being inundated with violent threats from the far right”. At the very least, he is an unsavoury character for the most prominent New Atheists to associate with.

Similarly dubious is the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” of which Sam Harris is a proud member. The term was coined by mathematician and financier Eric Weinstein to describe a loosely-aligned set of media reactionaries, including Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Christina Hoff Sommers. Though its most prominent figures had already amassed large audiences through YouTube videos and podcasts, as well as publications like Quillette, this quasi-movement gained mainstream attention after a 2018 New York Times profile by Bari Weiss. The piece opens:

“Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered ‘dark.'”

To see the most tired and mainstream small-c conservative orthodoxies presented as radical truths is frankly laughable, but the pose of being under attack by a politically correct orthodoxy is essential to the Intellectual Dark Web. As well as profiling its more respectable figures, however, Weiss also points out the movement’s less savoury connections:

“Go a click in one direction and the group is enhanced by intellectuals with tony affiliations like Steven Pinker at Harvard. But go a click in another and you’ll find alt-right figures like Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorists like Mike Cernovich (the #PizzaGate huckster) and Alex Jones (the Sandy Hook shooting denier).”

The movement’s nominally anti-establishment positioning makes its members more liable to view these figures as fellow politically incorrect outlaws. But as Weiss puts it, “if you are willing to sit across from an Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich and take him seriously, there’s a high probability that you’re either cynical or stupid.” It is reasonable to characterise the Intellectual Dark Web as overlapping with the ‘Alt-Light,’ the less overtly racist media figures who offer more mainstream versions of the alt-right’s ideas. The most prominent New Atheists certainly have tangible links to some of the most extreme figures in mainstream media, and continue to build careers off right-wing culture wars.

But as well as these direct connections, the New Atheists also serve as indirect links to far right ideology. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American non-profit which tracks extremist activity, stated that some alt-righters found Sam Harris’ work “blended easily into that of more overtly racist writers.” The report argues that, “Under the guise of scientific objectivity, Harris has presented deeply flawed data to perpetuate fear of Muslims and to argue that black people are genetically inferior to whites.” It notes some of Harris’ less responsible uses of his podcast, including the Charles Murray incident, and quotes one alt-righter who moved from Harris’ content to that of the overtly racist blogger Paul Kersey.

The report also notes the importance of the YouTube algorithm in “coaxing viewers into the deeper depths of the alt-right.” It cites a Wall Street Journal investigation which found that YouTube promotes content which keeps users on the site for longer periods of time, “and those videos often happen to be among the more extreme content on the site.” Social media algorithms have a tendency to recommend more extreme versions of the material users are already engaged with. Videos featuring Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins can be only a few recommendations away from overt white supremacists, and YouTube will automatically direct users to them.

The remnants of New Atheism have survived into an even more polarised political climate, in which readers, listeners, and viewers are more easily radicalised than ever before, simply through media infrastructure. This environment, coupled with the New Atheists’ own gradually more extreme statements and their connections to even more dubious personalities, has made them one of the more acceptable mainstream pathways to the alt-right.

*

This is how we got to Richard Dawkins tweeting about eugenics. But more concerning than the confused, reactionary, and tone-deaf comments of the New Atheists is the wider movement to which they provide both fuel and legitimacy.

On Brinkmanship

For Christine Kelley. Go and back her Patreon.

There are many things to criticise in ‘Can We Pull Back From the Brink?,’ Sam Harris’s editorial podcast on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. There is the tiresome concern trolling about protests undermining coronavirus lockdowns. There is the disingenuous whataboutism that more white people than black people are killed by police in the US. There is the hackneyed hand-wringing about “black-on-black crime”. There is the disgraceful smearing of Antifa as a “group of total maniacs”.

But perhaps the most damning criticism is this: it is an hour and fifty-three minutes long.

And yet, for all his prolixity, Harris does not directly quote a single Black Lives Matter activist or police abolitionist in his 15,583 words of alternately pernicious and noncommittal blather. While he opens with a declaration that “Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress” (galling enough when legislation and direct action are readily available), he consistently refuses to engage with the ostensible targets of his critique.

His one direct and attributed quote from anyone vaguely connected to the Black Lives matter movement comes from Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender:

“At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, ‘What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?’ And her first response to that question was, ‘You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.'”

He slightly misquotes her, actually. The original transcript reads:

“Yes, I mean, hear that loud and clear from a lot of my neighbors. And I know — and myself, too, and I know that that comes from a place of privilege. Because for those of us for whom the system is working, I think we need to step back and imagine what it would feel like to already live in that reality where calling the police may mean more harm is done.”

I bring this up for two reasons. First is the basic irresponsibility of not checking shit before you present it to an audience of millions. I have no reason to believe Harris is deliberately distorting the truth here; I think he simply misremembered Bender’s words as he was writing this piece. What a responsible journalist is supposed to do, though, is check whether their memory matches the original document before hitting ‘publish’. This was a standard that even the Daily Mail was able meet on this story.

Which leads me to my second reason, which is that Harris’s imperfect recall means he misrepresents what Bender actually said. Harris’s framing brings to mind the woker-than-thou caricatures common in right-wing depictions of the left; ‘You need to recognise what a statement of privilege that question is, unlike I, who read Angela Davis once and am an Enlightened Antiracist.’ Whereas Bender’s actual words are far more inclusive; ‘we need to step back,’ ‘and myself, too’. There is an invitation to a different worldview, not an attempt to browbeat the ignorant proles. An equivocating, politician’s answer? A fumbling, tone-deaf response from a moderately powerful white woman in response to historic black protest? Undoubtedly. But if Harris is going to engage so sloppily and disingenuously with even this tepid invitation to alternative viewpoints, god help him with an actual Black Lives Matter activist.

Which makes it all the more noticeable that he doesn’t. I almost wrote ‘surprising’ there, but that’s wrong; this strategic refusal to engage is entirely characteristic of Harris’s political writing. Let it never be forgotten that Harris’s first book opens with a fictional account of a suicide bombing, before sniggeringly asking how we know the bomber’s religion. And here we are, sixteen years later, with this:

“I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.

This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.”

There is a scientific term for these two paragraphs: anecdotal evidence. We are told that people “don’t understand how to behave around cops” but the only evidence provided for this claim is Harris’s personal reading of some videos and a previous podcast of his. Until such time as Harris provides an actual source for his claims about the opinions of the public generally or Black Lives Matter specifically, I can only fall back on the maxim of his old friend Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

The great philosopher @dril once stated he was “thinking of inventing a new type of person to get mad at on here. maybe people who carry too many keys around.. i dont know yet”. Reactionary politics thrives on precisely this creation of phantom opponents. A real Black Lives Matter activist might persuasively argue for defunding the police; easier to simply imagine one who is for some reason in favour of resisting arrest.

It is this willful non-engagement that makes Sam Harris so frustrating to deal with; yet it also makes him fundamentally uninteresting. The Black Lives Matter movement is not beholden to those who will not dignify them with a quote, let alone a policy analysis. If you want to pull back from the brink, it would help if you could tell us where it is.

The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten

Cover by Blair Bidmead and Cody Schell

I’m very happy to say that The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten, my book about Doctor Who, New Atheism, post-colonialism, and fandom, is now available from Obverse Books. You can buy it here, in both ebook and paperback formats.

I’ve done a two-part interview about the book with the brilliant Alex Moreland over at Flickering Myth. You can check out part one here, and part two here, and while you’re at it, do check out Alex’s website for more quality media analysis.

I’ve also done some fun promotional stuff on Twitter, and will continue for the next couple of weeks. Do pop round on Monday 6 April at 7pm UK time, where I’ll be doing an AMA to celebrate the episode’s seven-year anniversary.

This is a difficult time for a lot of people, and there are far more important things going on than a Doctor Who book launch. But I’m very grateful to everyone who has made this possible, and I hope this book can bring some joy in this bleak period. Stay safe.

Rest now, my warriors.

 

 

 

Plans for 2020

Been a while, hasn’t it? While I was off studiously not writing blog posts, I was making my plans for 2020, which involved a lot of writing about this TV show, you may have heard of it, it’s called Doctor Who…

Coming in April 2020 — The Black Archive #42: The Rings of Akhaten

I’m thrilled to announce that Obverse Books let me write an entire monograph about the classic Matt Smith episode The Rings of Akhaten, and it’s coming out this April. It’s a critical but deeply personal book, exploring New Atheism, postcolonial theory, feminism, and fandom. There are also some tasty extras, including an exclusive interview with Farren Blackburn, the episode’s director, and a never-before-seen behind the scenes document.

The book is available for preorder here. Do check out the rest of the Black Archive range. It’s one of the most exciting things in Doctor Who criticism right now, and I’m thrilled to have been able to contribute.

Speaking of Doctor Who criticism, with Series 12 airing I’m pleased to say I’ll be appearing on Downtime‘s series of panel discussions, Dash of Outrage, to cover episode 6. You can check out the rest of the series here, and I highly recommend it. I’ve also been invited back to the excellent Galactic Yo-yo podcast, where I’ll be discussing episode 7 with Molly Marsh and Max Curtis.

If you run a podcast or blog, and would like to interview me about the book, or have me talk about Series 12, please get in touch. You can email me at williamshawwriter@gmail.com, or feel free to DM me on Twitter.

I hope everyone has a happy new year. Here’s to much quality Doctor Who discussion during it!

Voluntary Extinction

In J.G. Ballard’s groundbreaking 1975 novel High-Rise, the residents of a high-rise tower block, after a period of apparent contentment with their living-machines, turn on each other in an orgy of violence. This causes the tower to descend into murder, robbery, and worst of all, littering, with the residents of the lower flaws declaring war on the upper, and vice versa, in an apparent instance of class warfare. In the novel, the inherent violence of the human animal is laid bare, rendered as stark as the grey concrete of the tower. This is literalised in the 2015 film adaptation by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, which features a scene where Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing dissects a human head before a group of medical students, noting that: “As you can see, the facial mask simply slips off the skull.” This scene is repeated later in montage as the building descends further into anarchy.

All of this is probably a metaphor, presumably to do with society or something, but the novel repeatedly frames the tower as both discretely individualised and otherworldly. Laing reflects that the tower is “less a habitable architecture… than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event”, and that from this vantage point “the office buildings of central London belonged to a different world, in time as well as space.” Whatever the tower’s problems, they do not belong to the wider world which eventually strikes Laing as an “alien planet” but to itself. In the high-rise, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and their families, and their delicious, edible house-pets. The high-rise is a concrete desert island, cut off from planet Earth, and J.G. Ballard the William Golding to this Lord of the Flyovers.

The theme of entrapment is expanded on by Wheatley and Jump, who, with the benefit of foresight, explicitly build up the high-rise as a herald of neoliberalism. Laing’s pondering in the novel’s sixteenth chapter that “he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted” is moved up to the film’s prologue, and the film ends with the architect’s bastard child listening to a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Given that the Iron Lady would be co-architect for an even grander project at the End of History, this represents a canny extension on Ballard’s themes, with potential space for a new conservatory. Jeremy Irons’ architect, Royal, even frames his project as a concretisation of free market economics:

“There will be five towers in all, encircling the lake. Something like an open hand. The lake is the palm and we stand on the distal phalanx of the index finger.”

The invisible hand has been forced into being, by a powerful man with a big dream and ambitions to disrupt the market. It’s like Uber, but for social collapse.

All of which is somewhat undermined by the fact that nothing about this apocalypse is necessary. And not just in the sense of being an avoidable catastrophe; the high-rise is an entirely voluntary system, which goes to hell for no other reason than that its inhabitants want it to. It is the perfect embodiment of the Non-Aggression Principle of American Libertarianism. (For the unfamiliar, the NAP is the sacred political principle by which taxation is violence but slavery is not).

As the tower continues its slow trajectory, it sees a gradual abandonment by the hired help. The supermarket is increasingly short-staffed, and then empty. When Royal and his wife visit the tower’s exclusive restaurant in chapter 7, we are told that “the two waiters had already gone”, and by chapter 9, “After serving a last lunch to the Royals the chef and his wife had left for good.” This leaves only the building’s actual residents, who are hardly a diverse bunch. As Laing observes:

“The two thousand tenants formed a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people – lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians and trios of air-hostesses sharing apartments. By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high-rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments, in the selection of sophisticated foods in the supermarket delicatessen, in the tones of their self-confident voices.”

This apocalypse is exclusively a middle-class pastime. The working, and indeed the upper classes are almost entirely absent. The Hobbesian war of all against all is no more than a spat between the clientele of Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The real horror is not that all humans are really like this; it is that the middle class wants to be like this, and thinks everyone else does, too.

And they may be right. After all, apocalypse is a middle-class pastime. It’s an aspiration. A recreational activity which grows increasingly popular, especially now that tech-savvy entrepreneurs have created scrolling towers of infinite hate which fit neatly in our pockets, and white supremacy is an agreeable time-waster that fits in between the big grocery shop and picking the kids up from school. Laing ends the novel gazing out at the second tower in the ongoing global development project:

“Already torch-beams were moving about in the darkness, as the residents made their first confused attempts to discover where they were. Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”

Journalist Hayes Brown writes about the collective denial of the middle classes in the global North about the high-rise project we are building for all the world. These people, “the massively wealthy on a global scale, the powerless compared to the truly rich in this world, the average human in the United States of America”; these are the architects of the end of the world, simultaneously villains, victims, fall guys, and ultimately dust that will not even have the satisfaction of a pension plan. In a peculiarly Ballardian passage, Brown writes:

“We do our best to go about our days, filling them with a constant stream of distractions.

I’m right there with them, making my way home from the store, arms laden with groceries, sweat forcing my T-shirt to cling to my back, yet already pondering whether my craving for a chopped cheese from the bodega is more important to me in this moment than using up the fresh vegetables already in my refrigerator before they rot. But then my phone vibrates and there’s another push alert imploring that I read a fellow journalist’s new report on the fate rushing towards us.

There’s a moment’s hesitation before I swipe up, sending it into oblivion, forgotten as so many other divinations before it.”

The horror is not that we choose this world, and this end of the world. The horror is that we choose it. You and I choose it. I choose it.

I’m still choosing it.

Of Men & Monsters

1. I was ten years old when I first watched Love & Monsters. My memories of it are hazy, and, as it tried to remind me, childhood memories cheat. But I remember absolutely hating it. Of course I did; I was a kid. I had no idea what to do with this band of bizarre misfits, the absence of the Doctor, the idolisation of decades-old pop culture detritus, the grungy industrial sets. I was scared out of my wits by the Abzorbaloff, to the point of being unable to look directly at it on subsequent viewings. For a long time, I thought it was the worst episode of anything ever. But then I grew up, and realised it was all true.

2. A year or so ago, the marketing for Ready Player One was doing the rounds on social media, to a round of predictable guffaws. I haven’t self-identified as a geek for a number of years now (but that’s another story), but I commented at the time that the best story about ‘being a geek’ was still Love & Monsters. Which I stand by. The marketing for Ready Player One seemed to revolve entirely around remembering arcane trivia, but the things we were asked to recognise were… completely mainstream American pop culture artefacts from the last 30 years or so, i.e. stuff most of the film’s audience would recognise with little-to-no effort. Which is so often the paradox of geekhood, or indeed fandom in general; we’re the people so invested in the most popular commodities that we forget their own ubiquity. Perhaps because we must.

3. Fandom discourse around Love & Monsters, at least in my experience, is bizarrely blind to Peter Kay. We’ll talk about his petitioning Davies for the role, the idea he was asked to play Elton, and even (especially) the fact he was a fan of the show. But there’s comparatively little talk of just how weird it is that the biggest comedian in the country ended up on Doctor Who playing a low-rent bully in a comparatively tiny episode. For a better idea of this weird anti-stunt casting, imagine if Michael McIntyre had played Tim Shaw. Or if Adam Sandler had played the Kerblam! Man. At the very least, going from watching Peter Kay’s Car Share to this was… actually a fairly smooth transition. If Elton had been into a wider range of pop music, you can absolutely picture him in that show.

4. ‘Look at your hands!’ The grasping hands of Victor Kennedy are a repeated motif of this episode; he not only reaches out, he snatches, clutches, and at one point grabs directly at the camera before pulling back. Jack Graham and Niki Haringsma have written fascinatingly about Victor Kennedy as the embodiment of Doctor-Who-as-commodity, and Haringsma points out that Victor Kennedy can also represent sexual predators who use fandom as cover. There’s a reason Bliss and Bridget are the first to disappear; why he marks Ursula out as ‘most likely to fight back’. Victor Kennedy is the bad fan, with all the implications of that term, literally sustained by a clenched, silver fist. Given this, it’s notable that breaking the cane also sees that fist unclench; Victor Kennedy can be defeated, but not without taking an entire community down with him. LINDA, I let you go.

5. Except, of course, we don’t quite. The episode’s final speech is, if we’re being honest, a little overplayed in fandom — darker, madder, better, etc. — the ‘hello Stonehenge’ or ‘can you hear them singing’ for a more cynical age. Like both those speeches, the lines themselves are undermined by the episode they appear in; they’re exactly the kind of awkward, fumbling attempts at profundity you would expect from a sermon which begins by quoting Stephen King, delivered by a man whose primary aesthetic influence is Jeff Lynne. And yet, they clearly do move; the joy of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. Personally, my favourite bit of this scene is that Elton has finally got the remote control zoom he said he needed in the opening; I believe the technical term is ‘Character Development’.

6. Besides which, the episode’s most moving moment actually comes a few minutes earlier. It’s just a shame we have to get there via the Doctor standing silently over yet another dead woman; a cynical pop culture trope that Doctor Who really ought to be smarter than, even now. But as Haringsma points out, LINDA is aptly-named; this was always a detective story. The fact that Elton’s mother does not get a single line of dialogue, despite being the emotional lynchpin of the story, would be a contradiction were it not for the already-established tradition of such things. None of which is to disparage the episode; only to contextualise it.

7. Specifically, to contextualise Elton’s mother walking away, leaving the little boy on his own. That fade to white, with the mournful, distorted chant of ‘Please… Turn… Me… Over’ is among the most moving things in Doctor Who history.

The happy contexts of sad memories;

the cynicism in the heart of all optimists;

the loneliness embedded in the popular.

 

 

Niki Haringsma’s Black Archive on Love & Monsters, which I had the pleasure of proof-reading an early draft of, is out now, and is brilliant. You can buy it here.

Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
— The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

These lines constitute the one and only mention of Miranda’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As such, they open an intriguing gap: beyond being “a piece of virtue,” who was Miranda’s mother, and what happened to her? Many have tackled this question, with a variety of results. Literary critic Stephen Orgel used it to explore the anxiety around parentage for Shakespeare generally. Filmmaker Julie Taymor viewed it as a screenwriting problem, and solved it by making Prospero Miranda’s mother. Debut novella author Katharine Duckett, meanwhile, uses it as a jumping-off point for a queer Gothic romance, with Miranda’s mother one of many dark secrets at the heart of a Milanese castle. Inventive and dark, yet full of genuine heart, Miranda in Milan turns Shakespeare’s beloved text on its ear, creating something both more macabre and more liberating in the process.

The story picks up a few weeks after Shakespeare leaves off, with Miranda and Prospero’s return to Italy. While Prospero retreats immediately to his isolated study, Miranda finds herself “a monster.” Cut off from both her island home and her fiance Ferdinand, she is forced to hide from the world at large, servants “moving around her as though she were a cockroach,” a veil forced upon her whenever she leaves her chambers. Her only friend is the “Moorish” servant Dorothea, a self-confessed witch, and thus the only person “with nothing to fear from you or your father.” Yet there is very good reason to be afraid of Prospero. The wizard is back at his old tricks; the vow to drown his book has been broken. What else has Prospero lied about? What really happened to Miranda’s mother? And can Miranda escape the influence of the man who has scripted her entire life so far?

As all this implies, Miranda in Milan is an openly revisionist sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Early on, Miranda reminisces about a much more sympathetic Caliban than readers may remember, and Duckett implies that the two were deliberately forced apart by Prospero. Ariel also makes a brief cameo appearance, in an even more ambivalent form than the original, and Duckett offers the intriguing detail that Miranda

“had wanted an Ariel of her own, once, an ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father’s command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her until she was black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.”

Prospero himself is the most obvious target of revisions, revealed by Duckett as an outright villain. Dorothea wakes Miranda up to his lifetime of manipulations, as she realises her memories are dotted with “Strange sights, inexplicable visions: and then sleep, a heavy, sudden sleep she never experienced here, on the mainland.” Readers of The Tempest will know that these sleeps were in fact magically-induced trances, meant to shut Miranda up while her father carried out his work, adding a sinister air to once-accepted stagecraft. Miranda ultimately realises that “Her father was a story he had told her himself”; Shakespeare’s version, it seems, was unreliably narrated.

Yet while the novella is intensely critical of Shakespeare’s old wizard, there is also a sense of affection and playfulness. There are nods to several Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and Titus Andronicus as well as The Tempest. But the most delightful revision comes in Miranda’s relationship with Dorothea, which develops into a full-on lesbian romance. Shakespeare has often rewarded queer readings, and moments like Miranda’s realisation that “she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely” expand cleverly on the original text while joyously queering it. Particularly memorable is Miranda and Dorothea’s first sexual encounter, which stems from a fantasy-inflected homage to the grand tradition of Shakespearean cross-dressing, and then adds a fantastic gag of its own.

But Shakespeare is not the only literary tradition in play, and Duckett’s crossing it with the Gothic yields strong, if mixed, results. The novel’s mid-section, where we learn the true fate of Miranda’s mother, feels a little over-long, although it packs a real punch towards the end. Though the book resurrects most of the play’s noble characters, a visit from Stephano and Trinculo might have added some variety. And while the book’s final twist is fitting (and its last sentence absolutely gorgeous) the means of getting there is not quite adequately seeded earlier on, which adds a sense of contrivance to an otherwise neat parallel.

But then again, what would the Gothic — or indeed Shakespeare — be without contrivance? Miranda in Milan is a delightful expansion of Shakespeare’s characters, and a critical yet affectionate interrogation of The Tempest. As answers to its central question go, it’s a damn good one, and one that feels precisely calibrated to the needs of 2019.

Miranda in Milan is available for preorder from Macmillan, in ebook and paperback editions.

Review: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 3 July 2018.

From a career perspective, the middle initial is the would-be sci-fi writer’s greatest asset. Especially if you also hope to maintain a career in the Literary Sphere, a good middle initial can demarcate your science fiction from the ‘real world’ stuff, while still reeling in your inbuilt audience. Hence Iain M. Banks, Jenny T. Colgan, and the subject of today’s review, Naomi A. Alderman. Now world-famous as the author of 2016 bestseller The Power, in 2011 Alderman was “only” a very successful and respected literary novelist, known for titles including Disobedience and The Lessons. Apparently at the request of her younger cousin that she ‘write something for him to read,’ Alderman donned the middle initial to pen a Doctor Who novel featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor for BBC Books. The result, Borrowed Time, is a thoughtful and exciting Doctor Who story about nefarious bankers and alien con merchants, seeing a re-release this month to capitalise on Alderman’s still-rising star. 

Given the commercial reasons behind this re-release, it is perhaps ironic that Borrowed Time concerns itself so heavily with late capitalism. The first chapter follows a day in the life of Andrew Brown, a harassed and overworked junior analyst at Lexington International Bank, as he oversleeps, forgets his sister’s birthday, and turns up late and under-prepared to a meeting. At peak frustration, he is approached by two sinister businessmen, Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop, who make him an offer he can’t refuse:

‘Mr Brown, we can loan you time.’
‘That’s right, Mr Brown. We can lend you as much time as you need. As much time as you can handle. As much time as you could ever desire.’”

But of course, this offer comes with a catch: 

“‘Now of course, Mr Brown, that time will have to be paid back.’
‘At what we think you’ll agree,’ muttered Mr Blenkinsop, just a little too fast for Andrew to fully catch, ‘is a very reasonable rate of interest.’

A few months later, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive to find strange goings-on at Lexington International Bank. Its employees are almost inhumanly productive, apparently spending more time at work than there are hours in the day, and its new boss, Rebecca Laing-Randall, seems to be hiding something… 

The novel’s basic setting and concerns have aged well. Borrowed Time came out three months before the start of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the intervening years have seen repeated controversies surrounding bankers’ bonuses, austerity, Corbynism, and even Doctor Who itself explicitly fighting ‘capitalism in space’ in the 2017 episode Oxygen. There’s a maturity to the way Alderman deals with these concepts that feels refreshing for a Doctor Who book, not to mention being ahead of the larger franchise. That said, Borrowed Time is nothing as dull as ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’. Alderman is unashamedly writing an all-ages action adventure with all the requisite monsters and chases (including a rather fun runaround with some giant cockroaches under the Millennium Dome). 

This all-ages remit is hard-wired into Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a family programme, intended to bridge the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury in the BBC One Saturday evening schedule, its original cast consisted of two middle-aged schoolteachers, a teenage girl and an older man — designed to be as demographically diverse and thus broadly appealing as possible (within the limited range of people who could attain starring roles on BBC One in 1963). This family focus, always present to one degree or another in its subsequent 26-year run, meant the show was ripe for a revival in the early 2000s wave of ‘crossover’ children’s fiction marketed to adults. The standard-bearer for this wave was the Harry Potter franchise, and Russell T. Davies repeatedly cited J.K. Rowling as an influence over his 2005 revival of Doctor Who (at one point even speculating about casting her in an episode). This literary tradition was further played up when Steven Moffat took over in 2010, emphasising the show’s ‘fairy tale’ qualities, and it’s broadly this tradition that Alderman writes in here. The ostensibly ‘adult’ setting of the bank is made accessible to children through the familiar figures of the Doctor and his companions, while the abstract threat of financial disaster is made more visceral through the use of monsters. 

Everything about Borrowed Time points to a writer who fundamentally “gets” Doctor Who. The book has twenty chapters of near-uniform length, each containing an interesting set piece, from ‘our heroes are trapped in a confined space with alien crabs’ to ‘the Doctor attempts to blend in at a business meeting and fails utterly’. These keep the action nicely varied while still advancing the main plot, creating a brisk pace that ensures no idea outstays its welcome. It is by no means a revolutionary structure, but it does demonstrate that real thought has gone into shaping the story and making it engaging to younger readers. References to Doctor Who old and new are sprinkled throughout (seeing a Respected Literary Author reference The Masque of Mandragora is a rare joy for the long-term fan) and the basic idea of ‘aliens wreak havoc in contemporary London’ owes a clear debt to the 1970s iteration of the show, as well as its more modern incarnations. There’s even a revival of the show’s educational mandate, with the revelation that the book’s villains are exploiting the human race’s craving for time by lending it to them at impossibly high rates of compound interest, resulting in them owing more time than they could ever repay. This not only turns the novel into a sci-fi retelling of the 2008 financial crisis, it also leads to a pleasantly kid-friendly explanation of how compound interest works, through layers of icing stacked upon a slice of cake:

‘The interest goes up much faster than your actual borrowings. Once an hour, a slice of icing for every hour you’ve borrowed.’
‘That’s a lot of icing.’
‘That’s how compound interest works. Eventually, the icing you have to pay on the icing is thousands of times more than the cake.’
Amy stared at the soft sweet brown mass of icing. She’d never disliked icing before, but she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to eat it again now.

By making the villains’ scheme hinge on a real feature of the financial system, the book manages to highlight the potentially predatory nature of that system without resorting to raw didacticism. In this moment, we are not merely asked to contemplate the possible danger of compound interest — we are made viscerally aware of it, with the knowledge that Amy has herself been borrowing time and now owes thousands of years. By evoking the existing financial system, and subjecting a character we care about to a particularly brutal iteration of it, Alderman demonstrates the unfairness of that system while providing a moment of dramatic horror. 

On top of that, the book has a number of clever riffs on the idea of money in Doctor Who generally, and how the show tends to obscure concrete economics. At one point Rory gives a homeless woman money, musing:

It was funny how, living in the TARDIS and travelling with the Doctor, money began to feel less important, even meaningless. There were seemingly limitless supplies of all kinds of exotic alien currencies piled up in some of the TARDIS’s rooms… but they never found anything much to spend money on, and the things they did and saw couldn’t have been bought at any price. He’d brought loads of money, just in case, but now he only carried his wallet out of habit, and this woman needed its contents more than he did.

This is a clever observation, and one which naturally extends from Rory as a character. Not only is Rory a generally kind person, he’s also someone who notices and comments on the rules governing the world of Doctor Who (in series five, for example, he twigs how the TARDIS works before the Doctor can explain it to him). Amy is similarly well-served by Alderman, with an entire chapter dedicated to her over-borrowing time, neatly demonstrating the seductive power of the villain’s offer. If anything, the Doctor is the one given the least attention in the character department, with relatively little insight into his emotional state as he dispenses jokes and exposition. Mind you, this is far from unusual for the series, and is made up for by a well-developed supporting cast, including three employees of Lexington Bank whom the Doctor and his friends help rebel against their corporate masters. 

Even with its shiny new edition, Borrowed Time is likely to remain a footnote in Alderman’s larger career. But as career footnotes go, it is far more interesting than it has any right to be; an imaginative, intelligently-structured Doctor Who story with lots of jolly anti-capitalism for the kids. Indeed, on the strength of this book, it’s easy to see why Alderman was tapped as one of the first authors to write for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in prose, with an as-yet unnamed story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor set to drop next March. One can only hope that story will continue in the vein of Borrowed Time; exciting, characterful, and unmistakably Doctor Who. 

Oh, and it also contains the greatest thematic riff ever written on Attack of the Cybermen. 

Borrowed Time is re-released in paperback now. It is available here, RRP £7.99.