One of the curiosities about recent TV and movie drama set in tyrannical futures is that they tend to be set in an overhyped right-wing future, dominated by fascism, the religious right, or big business. It’s quite rare that, with the exception of Orwell’s 1984, which could just as easily be about fascism, you come across a fictional portrayal of a recognisable left wing tyranny dominated by, say, the unions and an overbearing state. In today’s climate, the idea of union leaders actively dominating a country’s political system is pretty far fetched, but in the 1970s in Britain, it wasn’t that radical an idea to extrapolate past the industrial chaos of the 1970s into a Socialist dominated Britain.
Ironically, it was that bastion of liberalism, the BBC, which produced the concept. “1990″, starring Edward Woodward as a rebellious journalist facing down the government’s menacing Public Control Department, ran for two seasons in 1977/78. Like most drama produced in the 1970s, it’s studio bound talkiness can be quite irritating to a modern TV audience used to speedy plot progress, save maybe for “Mad Men” fans, of course. I can’t say that I really recommend it as entertaining (You can find most episodes on Youtube and make your own judgement) but as a political concept piece it’s quite interesting for its novelty.
The show is set in a fictional 1990, seven years after the economic collapse of Britain leads to the coming to power of a hard left union dominated government in a general election where only 20% bother to vote. The government implements all the classics: nationalises nearly all business, introduces penal taxation, taxes imports and luxury goods and bans overtime (to create job sharing). It deals with the “rich fleeing high taxes” problem by introducing an East German exit visa system. You simply can’t leave, and a lot of the show is about Edward Woodward’s resistance leader Jim Kyle trying to help mostly talented people, or political dissidents, get over the English channel.
What’s interesting about “1990″ is the subtlety. The country is still nominally a democracy with a parliament (although fresh elections are indefinitely postponed), and there’s still a few non-state owned newspapers, but try to print anything overly critical of the state and the union shop stewards basically refuse to operate the printing presses. It’s an very right wing dramatic viewpoint that is hard to imagine on television today. The Home Office’s Public Control Department (PCD) basically operate as a relatively non-violent Stasi, sending opponents of the regime off to Adult Rehabilitation Centres where they’re electroshocked into being good citizens.
The state doesn’t like open Soviet style violence, because of the poor publicity it causes in the rest of Europe and the US, and so pressures people in more imaginative ways, such as Automatic Systematic Harassment, where an individual is targeted and subjected to every single legal inspection possible. Your car is constantly checked to ensure it’s legally compliant. Your taxes are scrutinised. Every form you have ever signed is gone over to see if you made any errors and therefore possibly broke the law. Your bins are checked to see if you are dumping things you shouldn’t be dumping. All legal, and individually all reasonable actions even in today’s society, but taken together it’s “the slow steamroller of the state”.
The cast isn’t bad, with Woodward (who shared the show’s conservative anti-tax philosophy) beginning to develop that shouty acting style he would later bring to “The Equalizer”. But it is very slow. Apparently, by the way, the concept of the show came to writer Wilfred Greatorex after his house was raided by VAT inspectors!
If you are going to watch the series, don’t read this, because I wanted to comment on how the series concludes.
Right, you’ve been warned. One of the basic premises of the show is that high ranking civil servants, although nominally under political control, are actually in charge. In the final episodes the Home Secretary Kate Smith (played coquettishly by the late Yvonne Mitchell, in her final role, and portrayed as a cross between Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher), a supporter of the regime, begins to realise that the public is tiring of the PCD, and betrays the PCD on television, announcing that the cabinet are shocked are the abuse of power by senior PCD officials. She actually leads a mob of angry citizens on a raid on PCD headquarters, but makes sure that they don’t destroy the PCD’s vast computer database because it’ll be allegedly needed for the trials of the PCD officials she’s only been instructing days previously. It’s a wonderfully cynical performance, and although it does herald a return to normal civil liberties and politics, it ends the series ominously.
A time traveller from the 20th Century wouldn’t initially notice it. Arriving on 24th Century Earth, capital of the United Federation of Planets, they’d find a society at peace, where poverty and material want had been banished at least a hundred years ago, and where self improvement would be the stated driving goal of humanity.
They’d see passionate political debate on the web, and and would vote in free elections to elect both Earth’s various federal and national governments (Earth still would be nominally divided into nations and regional unions, but really just for local administrative and cultural purposes) and also the President and Council of the United Federation of Planets. They’d also notice the pervasive presence of Starfleet personnel pretty much everywhere, with its nebulous duty of interstellar exploration but also defence of the UFP member states. They’d find it rare to encounter a family that did not have someone serving in “the fleet”, and it would be a source of pride to the family. Then there’s the presence of the great commanders of Starfleet history, from Archer to Kirk to Picard to Janeway, heroes used by the UFP and Earth’s government to unite the people in a multicultural bond of respect and tolerance.
Finally, they’d notice the economy, or rather, the lack of it: The fact that energy supply, which powers the molecule manipulating replicators in every home and workplace that creates everything from starship components to breakfast to new shoes, decides everything, and that energy supply is 100% controlled by the state.
There is no poverty. Everybody gets a comfortable home. Everyone is entitled to a de facto career of their choice. Choose to enroll in Starfleet, or just be a sculptor. Want to try running a restaurant? Sure, just apply at your local council for a space (the state owns all the property) and they’ll find you somewhere to set up, and off you go. It doesn’t have to make any money, obviously, because what would you need money for anyway? The state doesn’t mind what you do, yet this is the open secret that never gets discussed.
What happens to the bums, to the people who don’t want to be Starfleet ensigns or run restaurants or write holodeck dramas? What do they do? The answer is: nothing. They get allocated their home same as everybody else and can while their days away looking at the window if they wish. The state doesn’t care. Who gets the nice apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay? Whomever wins the lottery when an apartment becomes free, that’s who. Want to live on the upper east side of Manhattan? Put your name on the list, and good luck.
But try to become rich, and it’s a different ballgame. First of all, it’s impossible on Earth. How can you be rich if you can’t own anything. That’s not to say that people don’t regard this house or that apartment as “their” homes or businesses, and they are as long as you need them. But you don’t own them, and so you can’t acquire them as an asset. Set up a business? Sure. Just don’t have prices. After all, you don’t have costs. Why would you do it, so? Why do people like being praised for a play they wrote, or a painting they painted, or a fabulous cake they baked. Because of pride, and that is what drives economic activity on post-scarcity Earth. The great inventors, writers, chefs of Earth live in nice homes, but no nicer than anyone else’s. But they are lauded in the media for their efforts, and that’s their reward. Robots can keep the sewers clean.
But try to advocate a return to private property, and watch the walls close in. The United Earth Party, which wins every election on Earth, keeps an eye on these things. Start advocating private property or the accumulation of wealth and find that you’re just not invited onto the major news shows. Remarks will be made about how perhaps you’d be happy with the Ferengis. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of humans in particular live and thrive in that ultra-capitalist society. But don’t think you can push that nonsense here in paradise.
It’s when you look closer at the political structure on Earth you can see the dark corners. The United Earth Party, which seized control of the war scarred Earth after the Third World War, is all about tolerance and benevolence, but only by its definition. It’s the only party permitted, although its primary elections are open to all. Turnout in elections, however, tends to be around the 20% threshold, but it would be inaccurate to call it repression. The truth is, most humans have better things to do with their time. Then there’s the debates. Within the party, debate on the local issues (should we build a new bridge/transporter station/metro?) is vigorously debated. Interstellar policy is also a source of great exchanges. Should Bajor be permitted to join the Federation? Perhaps a defence treaty with the Klingon Empire? Are our defences strong enough facing the Romulans? Should Starfleet be building actually warships? And of course, the ever present threat of the Borg. Primary debates within the UEP will be open and passionate. But do not dare raise the issue of Earth’s economic settlement, because settlement denial is instant political poison. Support private property and wealth acquisition? Do you want another civil war on Earth? Do you like the idea of little children dying from radiation poisoning? Well, do you?
It’s not a secret, but it’s not openly discussed that New Zealand houses Earth’s largest prison. Most of the inmates are violent criminals, but one section holds those citizens who just would not accept the economic settlement. Those convicted of the violent advocacy of Capitalism. It’ll get you 20 years in an admittedly very comfortable prison, but a prison all the same.
Then there’s the class structure on Earth, which does get talked about, but really only in the chattering classes and academic journals. Firstly, bear in mind that classes on Earth are not based on creed or wealth or race. Racism of any form will get you banged up faster than you can say “Vulcans go home!”. The class structure is based on meritocratic ability. Really smart people end up as Federation scientists, or diplomats, or Starfleet officers. Indeed, pretty much every Starfleet officer is an accomplished scientist in their own right. The intellectual cream of Earth rises to the top, and effectively runs human society (and the United Federation of Planets. The human domination of the UFP is a source of muttering in member states off world, although most planets marvel at the human capacity for diplomacy). One former Klingon Ambassador to Earth referred to Starfleet Academy as a “studfarm where Earth’s high achieving cream meet, procreate, and their high achieving genes create the next self-replicating generation of high achievers.” It’s no surprise that the number of Starfleet recruits whose parents were also officers in rising every year.
As for the other 97% of humans, they just get on with their daily lives. Some work, some spend a lifetime studying, some just watch holodeck dramas all day, or just enjoy the view.
The news that Washington DC’s second most powerful couple, Josh and Donna Lyman, have resigned their positions as White House Chief of Staff and First Lady’s Chief of Staff to head up President Santos’s re-election campaign just goes to underline what a serious challenge the president’s reelection will be. Following West Virginia governor Ray Sullivan’s lightning win of the Republican nomination and immediate massive and effective barrage on the administration (he currently has a 14% lead over the president, according to Rasmussen), coupled with the ongoing fiscal and morale sapping drain of fighting a low intensity conflict (“Peace keeping operation”, as White House spokesperson Annabeth Schott never tires of correcting) in Kazakhstan, it would be hard to envy the embattled Democrats.
Critics within the party are quick to point to the inability of the Santos administration to get any traction from day one, starting out with a Congress that was unwilling to move on Santos’s key education and lobbying reforms (before going Republican in the mid-terms, restoring former speaker Haffley). In fact, many would argue that the only tangible (but probably longterm in terms of measure) successes of the administration would be the successful nomination of both former AG Oliver Babbish and former Bartlet White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey to the Supreme Court, joining Bartlet appointees Chief Justice Eleanor Baker Lang and Roberto Mendoza in forming a strong liberal bloc on the court.
In their defence, Team Santos will point to the calming of tensions of Kazakhstan as a major achievement, although many Republicans will claim that is due to the efforts of Secretary of State Vinick who has emerged, along with AG Ainsley Hayes as one of the few successes of the administration. It doesn’t help that both are Republicans, although the administration is happy to use both as an example of its bipartisan credentials. It should also be stressed that both the president and secretary Vinick, despite having fought a gruelling election against each other, have formed a genuinely close friendship, with the president giving serious weight to his former rival’s counsel. Vinick’s Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the region was genuinely welcomed by the president.
With Lyman deputy Sam Seaborn taking up Lyman’s former job, comment has also been made about how Santos has effectively surrounded himself with a “Bartlet mafia”. Seaborn, Lyman and his wife all served in Bartlet’s two campaigns and in his White House, and the news that former White House chief of staff CJ Cregg (wife of CNN’s Danny Concannon of The Concannon/Ziegler Report), another Bartlet inner-circler, is to take leave from the Hollis Foundation to head up communications in the campaign adds to the story. How close are these people? Both Cregg and Lyman have children named after the late Democratic party giant Leo McGarry, Bartlet’s first chief of staff, chairman of Bartlet for America, best friend, and a beloved figure amongst Bartletistas (and across the political aisle, it has to be said). Cregg will be bringing Charlie Young (Aka Mr Zoe Bartlet) and Margaret Hooper (who also has a child named after McGarry) with her from the foundation.
As if there isn’t enough of “the old band getting together”, the latest story is that legendary Democratic strategist Bruno Gianelli, who ran Bartlet’s two campaigns and then stunned liberals by crossing the floor to assist Vinick, has offered to come out of retirement for the Santos campaign, gratis. There’s a lot of anger still in the party towards Gianelli, but Lyman would be loath to turn down an offer from such a master political operator as Gianelli.
As for the former president himself? He seems to have developed a taste for the campaign trail again, having come out of retirement two years ago to campaign for his former spokesperson Will Bailey (husband of Fox News’s foreign policy analyst and former Bartlet Deputy NSA Kate Harper) in the tight Oregon 4th congressional district, a race won by the Dems, some say, in no short measure to Bartlet spending literally weeks in the district gladhandling. He also campaigned for his former Vice President Robert Russell in Russell’s successful Colorado senate bid. Incidentally, Bartlet’s other VP, disgraced former Texas senator John Hoynes, for years the assumed Man Who Will Be President, has apparently found Jesus following his second divorce after his disastrous campaign against Santos. He currently runs a drug rehabilitation and homeless shelter in downtown Dallas. Friends say that he has ruled out ever seeking office again. One remarked that “John has finally found happiness and inner contentment”.
Firstly, let me put a big giant SPOILER ALERT at the head of this piece. If you haven’t watched the BBC’s “Sherlock” up to “His Last Vow” then don’t read this!
Anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of a speculation on my current favourite TV show, and also a bit of cheering as to how much I enjoyed season 3. All three feature length episodes were entertaining, yet each episode was markedly different from the others.
“The Empty Hearse” had a big task, and filled it, whilst winking at the fans and pulling off a wonderful piece of misdirection in the opening. It almost caused a “For f**k’s sake!” to erupt but didn’t, with Rupert Graves’s Lestrade crisply reacting just as the viewers would.
By the way, if there’s one complaint I have, it’s that Lestrade didn’t get enough screen time. His eye-rolling double act with Watson is always fun, and check out his touching performance in the mini-episode “Many Happy Returns”. Did we see how Holmes actually survived? Who knows, other than the solution provided was pretty plausible.
“The Sign of Three” was played for laughs, with the stag scenes almost like a Mitchell and Webb sketch. The wedding itself was touching, and the mystery a bit so-so. The dagger through the belt? Hmmm? Really? The speech was also fun, although if I were Moffatt & Gatiss I’d resist the urge to turn Lestrade into a comic buffoon. Some clever clues about what was to come, all the same (listen to the telegram from “Cam”!)
“His Last Vow” was thrilling. Lars Mikkelsen as Charles Augustus Magnussen is just brilliant, and I hope we see him again. That’s impossible, you cry? We saw him shot. Is it impossible to think he’s in a coma in some Mycroft controlled facility? This is Sherlock, after all, and he’s so good. The eye flicking scene was wonderful, although I just didn’t buy that Mycroft couldn’t have gotten someone into the house, figured out the truth, and then just had him die from a polonium cocktail. The twist at the end, and the tip of the cap to the Rathbone movies was nice.
Other highlights: Amanda Abbington is a fabulous addition to the cast, turning the twosome into a very watchable threesome. Keep her! Actually, if Cumberbatch and Freeman can’t do more, how about an Avengers style spinoff: Mary and Irene Adler doing spy stuff for Mycroft. I’d watch that.
Watson in the drug den, when he gets physical with a junkie is a great touch. Before David Burke and Edward Hardwicke swung back towards the original stories in the Jeremy Brett TV series, Watson tended to be played as a bit of a clown. He isn’t in the Conan Doyle stories, having a separate skill set to Holmes, and a willingness to start throwing punches if necessary. He is, after all, a trained and competent soldier, something which is also nicely alluded to in Sherlock.
And finally: The Return of Moriarty. They just had to, Andrew Scott is just too good to let go to waste. I particularly love the way Moriarty is now known nationally in the show as a super villain of sorts, a Voldemort-style threat to authority from the shadows. This’ll be fun.
In late November 2005 (the actual date has been redacted), a building survey team entered a block of brownstone buildings in the lower east forties of New York City. Comprising of an architect, an engineer, and a number of experienced power tool operators, the group had been tasked by their employer, a well-known property developer, to carry out an invasive study into the unoccupied building to determine possible future commercial development uses.
After examining a number of floors, the architect and engineer were puzzled, because the design they had expected of the building, constructed in the early 20th century, was not what they were encountering. It seemed that most of the building’s inner space was actually taken up behind what seemed to be an inner cocoon comprised of thick concrete walls, the cocoon not being accessible from within the building itself.
Being used to unusual modifications, the team decided to penetrate the wall, and after many hours of drilling managed to break through into what seemed to be a metal lined corridor. The lead architect began to speculate as to whether they were in the correct location, and contacted their head office. Whilst awaiting confirmation, the engineer decided to explore the newly-accessed area.
Climbing through the hole, and the thin metal sheeting they had also penetrated, he found himself in a dusty corridor without any light save from his torch. On moving down the corridor, he entered a larger corridor, alongside which were a bank of computers and operator seats, all long abandoned. Loose papers were scattered about the floor.
Just after the corridor he found a room with a large circular table, and a map of the world. Before he could investigate further, a number of FBI agents entered the room, and escorted him back to his colleagues, who were all detained and questioned.
It emerged that the developer’s office had, in fact, made an error, sending the team to the wrong location. The team were released after some hours without charge, and informed merely that the building was an old United Nations office and as such was diplomatically protected.
In the confusion, the engineer forgot to reveal that he had taken one of the scraps of paper from the floor of the corridor. It seemed to be some sort of communications log, dated from 1985, and bore the symbol of a now forgotten organisation called UNCLE.
From the early 1950s until its hurried and ignoble closure in March 1985, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement was one of the most curious international security organisations that ever existed.
UNCLE was originally devised after discussions between President Eisenhower and Secretary Khrushchev. Both men, living in a new atomic age, felt that whilst both the United States and the USSR were ideological enemies, it was vital that international order be maintained, particularly with regard to atomic, biological and chemical weapons. As a result, both countries, along with Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Yugoslavia agreed to create a unified non-ideological organisation for sharing information and coordinating action to maintain political order.
UNCLE, with agents seconded from the participant nations military intelligence divisions, began operations in the mid-1950s, under the control of a council of five nominees, of which the US and USSR would always maintain two, and the remaining members (other countries joined later) would rotate.
The 1960s was UNCLE’s heyday, with the rapid development of technology combined with the US in particular still being open to international cooperation. UNCLE played a major role in foiling a significant number of attempts by political and wealthy groups to interfere in global affairs, including a number of hijacked weapons of mass destruction.
In the 1970s UNCLE’s effectiveness began to be questioned, as blatant attempts to steal nuclear weapons diminished in the face of aircraft hijackings and embassy sieges. In addition, hardliners in both the Kremlin and the United States Senate began to voice suspicions about UNCLE, both believing the organisation was being used by the other side for espionage (the organisation maintained HQs in both the US and USSR), and restrictions started to be imposed on what sort of operations it could engage in. This was ironic given that UNCLE’s most effective enforcement team actually comprised of an American CIA operative and a Russian Naval Intelligence officer.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sharply increased tensions to the extent that President Carter was forced to temporarily ban UNCLE from operating in the United States to placate conservatives, who were now openly demanding US withdrawal.
The election of President Reagan in 1980 did little to help restore UNCLE, despite the organisation’s success in preventing a stolen nuclear weapon from being used in a plot to destroy a nuclear power plant and discredit US energy policy. Following his landslide re-election in 1984, as a bone to conservatives who were actually demanding US withdrawal from the United Nations, Reagan announced in March 1985 the immediate withdrawal of the United States from UNCLE.
This triggered the immediate disbanding of the organisation as the Soviets followed suit, and the rapid closure of its New York headquarters.
The European branches of UNCLE were quickly folded into the organisation which eventually became Europol, and UNCLE was forgotten.
What is surprising is how quickly it faded. UNCLE, despite the secrecy about its internal operations, was actually a publicly known organisation, often mistaken as the enforcement arm of the United Nations Secretary General, with whom it had a strong relationship and did occasionally act on behalf of. Both military and police organisations across the world were enthusiastic supporters of the organisation as both a source of information but also for seconding promising officers.
Sir John Raleigh, UNCLE’s last controller (1983-1985) remarked, before his death in 2012, that in an age of globalisation and companies often more powerful than sovereign states, an organisation like UNCLE was actually more necessary now. He also suggested that the people it would most restrict, the very wealthy and powerful, were aware of that, and had used politics to destroy it. “In the late 1960s a group of powerful people attempted to put their patsy in the White House. UNCLE agents stopped them. These days, that seems to be par for the course.”
Spoiler alert: I’m assuming you’ve seen the Dr Who anniversary episode. If not, why not??
The French National Front has, in the past, been very big on hijacking Joan of Arc as an icon of their values. The Brits, on the other hand, have never been big on that. Winston Churchill sort of fills that particular void, but even then only from a distance. Despite being right on the single most important decision of his life, opposing Hitler, Churchill held opinions that would alienate many on both the modern right and left. Eurosceptics shift uncomfortably at his support for a United States of Europe, and in government after the war he was economically left wing and a union appeaser. The left remember his opposition to Indian independence. Still, one can’t be too picky. JFK was elected in a rigged election. FDR imprisoned Japanese Americans. An icon is supposed to be soothing from a distance but not looked at too closely.
Having said that, watching the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, I couldn’t help thinking that if there is anything that sums up modern Britain, it’s The Doctor. It’s hard to imagine any country where the identity of the actor playing a fictional character on a children’s (yes, that is who it is aimed it, even if it has made efforts to include the whole family) TV show is a source of enormous national debate and media coverage. The Americans don’t do the same about Superman. Even James Bond doesn’t demand the same loyalty.
But Dr Who is different. Possibly because TV is a more intimate form of culture than film, and by the sheer nature of TV producing much greater episodic quantity than film, and the fact that it is family friendly, and the fact that nearly three generations of TV viewers have now grown up with him, The Doctor has managed to find a particular niche.
But there’s more to it than that. Unlike James Bond, Dr Who has modernised to reflect modern Britain, and more to the point, is at ease with it (Prediction: we’ll see a female Dr by 2017). He’s cheeky, informal, comfortable with different cultures and even sexual orientations, and suspicious of big power in whatever form. He’s also from a former superpower long neutered, yet still with cultural impact throughout the galaxy.
To Eurosceptics, he could be an icon for an independent Britain not afraid to face down Brussels. To pro-Europeans he’s someone who recognises the need to work with allies, often by convincing them of his leadership ability in pursuit of a common goal.
But you know why he’s a national hero? I’m not a Brit, but even I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck when Tom Baker’s voice is heard in the final scene, because it means something. There’s a line in the episode when Rose his companion points out to The War Doctor that the wheezing sound the TARDIS makes is now synonymous with hope, and it’s the truest line in the whole episode, because for every fan from 1963 that’s exactly what the sound meant. That in the middle of an episode, when people were in what seemed like desperate hopeless danger, the sound of the TARDIS materializing always meant one thing: Here Comes Help.
Is there a Brit over six years old who doesn’t know that sound, or not know that a blue police box has absolutely nothing to do with either the police or telephones?
“Midnight Caller” ran from 1988-1991, and starred Gary Cole, who’d later become known to ”The West Wing” fans as Vice President ”Bingo” Bob Russell (and cult “Office Space” boss Bill “Yeah” Lumbergh).
Cole played Jack Killian, a former cop turned late night radio host. It was stylish for its day (especially as nearly every episode seemed to be set at night, which is hardly surprising, given its title), and was famous for Killian’s ”Goodnight, America, wherever you are” signoff. Cool theme music too.