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Planet of the Ood and the Banality of Evil

van gogh, starry starry night
The thing I really loved about this episode was the way that it addressed the banality of evil.

Not so much a review as a reflection on the way that Doctor Who treats notions of institutional evils. Spoilers, of course.



A bit of history, for those not in the know: the term "banal evil" was coined by Hannah Arendt, a Jewish woman who escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and later became well known for her social theories, particularly as they pertained to the oppression of Jews and other minorities leading up to and during WWII. She developed her theory of banal evil when she was observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a man who was responsible for signing the death warrants of countless numbers of Jews and others. Arendt was struck by how normal Eichmann was: his motives were not discernably different from many other people trying to advance through the ranks of their job, he was not particularly vicious (no more than you or me), and if he'd been brought up somewhere else, he probably would have been able to get along as a fairly useful member of society. This lead Arendt to theorise that the worst evils of which humankind is capable are often perpetuated by those whose motives are completely banal. She speculated that the socio-cultural institutions in which individuals operated simply created circumstances in which it's easy to switch off from notions of right and wrong.

Doctor Who has dealt with themes of banal evil before. Most notably, in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor refuses to accept "I was just doing my job" as an excuse for the atrocities perpetuated by the staff of the Game Station: this is an important point. Just because a person exists within an institution that enables banal evil, it does not mean that she or he is forced to switch off. In my opinion, Planet of the Ood takes it a step further: this episode presents us with a textbook case of banal evil; and it asks us to see ourselves in that textbook. We've got Solana, who is obviously just trying to maintain a good job, and so she believes the lies about making the Ood better. She may well believe it at first, but the crucial moment comes when the Doctor gives her the chance to work with him-- at this point, it's purely her choice, and she hides behind the institution that has allowed her to evade this choice up to that point.

Mr. Halpen is an even more poignant example: a classic Eichmann figure. Like Eichmann, Haplen feels distaste for the horrors perpetuated by his institution: Eichmann was sickened when he saw the mass graves outside the concentration camps just as Halpen was sickened by the Ood brain trapped in the circle; Eichmann personally never killed anyone, just as Halpen never had-- Halpen was uncomfortable pointing a gun at the Doctor and Donna, and he really was not looking forward to killing someone with his own hands, although he had ordered the deaths (appropriately, the gassings) of thousands of Ood. Both Eichmann and Halpen were capable of feeling affection for those they oppressed: Eichmann tried to defend himself by saying that he had allowed some Jews to escape for sentimental reasons, just as Halpen seemed to feel some genuine affection for Sigma, and let him go. These people aren't motivated by personal hatred-- they're just doing their morally reprehensible job.

All of this becomes even more interesting in relation to Donna's comment at the end: "Being with you, I can't tell what's right and what's wrong anymore." Superficially, this could seem to suggest that travelling with the Doctor is opening the way for Donna herself to immerse herself in banal evils. The Doctor's response, however, turns this on its head: "It's better that way, because people who think do turn out like Mr. Halpen." The Doctor's point is that if you think you know what's right and wrong, you become morally disengaged-- this allows you to blindly accept it when people tell you that it's okay to enslave groups of people (whether in our personal households or in sweatshops), or send them to their deaths, or to ignore the fact that other people are doing those things while you benefit. Ironically, having absolute notions of right and wrong allows people to switch off; while if we see right and wrong as difficult and complex questions with no definitive answers, that's when we have to keep questioning everything we do, that's when we really engage morally. There may never be a completely satisfactory answer, but at least we're not turning off.

And lastly, a few (mostly) unrelated points:

1. Did anyone else notice that when the Doctor and Donna first arrive on the sphere, it's snowing from a blue sky?

2. Did anyone else see parallels between what they were doing to the Ood and the process of intercission in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials-- basically removing the part of the self that enables emotions and identity-- whatever it is that we usually call a soul.

3. I loved the Ood songs. Can't wait for the soundtrack.

4. Donna is awesome.

5. Martha!

Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
daffodiltardis
Apr. 20th, 2008 09:00 am (UTC)
Oh I knew I'd seen #2 before! It's completely the same, and just as horrible. You don't cut away a person's soul.

Really good analysis, this episode can be interpreted on so many levels, it really was exceptional in that context. :P
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:03 am (UTC)
Yeah, it was definitely a "makes you think" episode. I know that some people thought it was too heavy-handed, but even if it was heavy-handed, the things it makes you think about are not simple by any means.
daffodiltardis
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, some people did think there was too much of that stuff and that it was too obvious, but we know the Ood are slaves and it's social commentary I thought was very subtle, although the purists would disagree. I likened it to the Russian Revolution and felt it made me think on many levels. Great episode in my books.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:14 am (UTC)
Oh yes, I've been meaning to comment on your post about the Russian revolution-- I thought that was very well argued. :)
daffodiltardis
Apr. 20th, 2008 11:13 am (UTC)
Oh thank you. Having never seen Lois and Clark though, I can't comment on those comparisons, but I've found DW to be very similar to other concepts, and as you've said, better executed. Perhaps we should consider them homages.
serendipitygirl
Apr. 20th, 2008 09:55 am (UTC)
Awesome analysis. I knew I really enjoyed this ep, but I think you've managed to put a finger or two on precisely why.
The HDM parallels, while I'd not specifically noticed them, are striking and resonant.
Thank you for sharing.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:05 am (UTC)
Thanks you for commenting. :)

I'd be interested to know if the HDM parallels were intentional or not-- I'd guess probably not, except that I know that RTD did intentionally invoke HDM in Doomsday (which I was rather pleased about, since my first thought when I saw the episode was "It's just like Lyra and Will" *sob*).
daffodiltardis
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:08 am (UTC)
I only read HDM a few months ago, but looking back I realise how similar they actually were, although I felt somewhat sadder in HDM, maybe becuase I was glad to see Rose go...

or the other thing is RTD steals everything.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, I was much sadder in HDM too. I was sorry to see Rose go, but I think that a lot of my sadness actually came from the fact that it was so similar to Pullman's work (one of the few books I've ever read that actually had me sobbing).

As for RTD stealing thing-- yeah he does do that, but so do most writers. I'm actually beginning to be quite amused by the similarities between certain DW episodes and some of the later episodes of Lois and Clark, which I was really into as a teenager in the 90s. The later episodes were incredibly crappy (okay, they were all a bit crappy, but the earlier ones were fun), so I'm actually kind of glad that someone is taking some of the ideas and making them into something decent.
serendipitygirl
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:32 am (UTC)
*nods* The whole alternate world thing from S2 screamed Phillip Pullman. I've not seen anything from Uncle Rusty to suggest such but someone (On Wiki, once upon a time) made a list of parallels between HDM and the alternate earth from S2 - something like thirteen or fourteen common elements.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:45 am (UTC)
True, there were a lot of common elements, although to be fair, a lot of them are very common to ALL alt!universes, not just Pullman's. Zeppelins, for instance, appear all the time (because after all, zeppelins are cool).
geekosaur
Apr. 20th, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
Exactly. I also noted the Doctor's direct invocation of Everett-Wheeler theory, which is the closest we currently get to a scientific basis for alternate universes... and notably, the actual E-W theory doesn't permit "worlds" to interact.
gillyp
Apr. 20th, 2008 11:41 am (UTC)
A really nice bit of analysis.
Thank you. I'd like to link it on my LJ if that's OK with you?

I wasn't that impressed with the ep - it felt poorly thought through and unresolved to me. I didn't hate it, didn't love it. I appreciate it had a 'message' but didn't think it presented that message in a terribly coherent way.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 11:52 am (UTC)
Re: A really nice bit of analysis.
Link away. :) I look forward to seeing what you have to say.
lizw
Apr. 20th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)
I really like this analysis. I grew up in 1970s/80s Germany, and we spent a lot of time in school thinking about the nature of evil, how the Nazis came to power, etc. It's stayed with me.

I hadn't thought of the intercision parallel until aegidian commented on the lack of a lobotomy scene - then it clicked.

Looking down a few posts, I see we seem to have similar tastes in fic, too. *friends*
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
*friends back* :)
miss_s_b
Apr. 20th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
I see you in the strangest places... ;)

@ lefaym: great post.
ibishtar
Apr. 20th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC)
That's a very interesting and spot-on analysis. I don't have much to add to that.
I didn't think of the HDM parallel. I immediately thought of lobotomy, like Donna did. That's the third strong similarity to HDM I've seen in DW. First, as many have pointed out, was the Lyra-Will/Doctor-Rose separation. Second, was stardust!Astrid. I likened her to those translucent angels and her atoms breaking apart to join the stars to what the ghosts from the Land of the Dead did when they were set free.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I hadn't thought of the stardust!Astrid thing; well spotted.
thesoulwithin
Apr. 20th, 2008 02:10 pm (UTC)
I liked how there was the very human concept of ignorance-to-avoid-inconvenience. You've managed to make me like the episode more than I did. Good show!
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC)
Oh, I'm glad I helped you like the episode more then! :)
ceresi
Apr. 20th, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting point! I haven't seen the episode yet, but your meta reminds me of Reset and the doctor who was willing to kill however many people in order to find the cure that would save the rest. He wasn't really evil, he seemed to be uncomfortable holding a gun, and he only really shot Owen out of anger and desperation.

Which calls to mind memories of yet ANOTHER doctor who categorically REFUSED to even CONSIDER evacuating a city on the brink of destruction, because That's Just Not What Time Lords Do, Is It? And of course we know, at the end, that the reason Pompeii had to be destroyed was the alien invasion and not just, I dunno, this volcano needs to kill a bunch of people -- if the Doctor had listened to Donna, instead of holding tight to his convictions, and started the evacuation when he had a chance, could more people have been saved?

:o
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
Good point, although I would argue that Alan Copely from Reset was actually more misplaced utilitarianism rather than banal evil. It's true though that he wasn't out to kill people-- he just thought that the deaths of a (relative) few could be justified if it meant that all disease was cured.

And of course, the Doctor's convictions are all over the shop. The big parallel that I saw in The Fires of Pompeii was with The Parting of the Ways, when the Doctor finds himself unable to kill all the humans on Earth in order to get rid of the Daleks-- in that situation, he'd sent his friends away from him, while this time he kept Donna close, so she could help him.
versaphile
Apr. 20th, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
Very interesting analysis, and it gives me a few things to ponder. It also reminded me of Ron Rosenbaum's refutation of Arendt's banality of evil:

http://www.observer.com/node/41889

The nightmare was not that monsters and demons in any supernatural sense had perpetrated the crimes of the Nazis, but that human beings were capable of acting like monsters and demons. (Ms. Young-Bruehl may have meant this and was merely using shorthand to convey it.) It was a crime committed by fully responsible, fully engaged human

beings, not unthinking bureaucratic automatons shuffling paper, unaware of the horror they were perpetrating, merely carrying out orders to maintain regularity and discipline, as "the banality of evil" school has it. Human beings capable of making monstrous choices and consciously choosing radical evil.

To deny this, as Arendt does in Eichmann's own case, is to deny "the face of [the] factual evidence," as she herself once characterized it. Even Mr. Bernstein, who attempts a scrupulous, skeptical defense of Arendt's reversal and rejection of radical evil for "banality," concedes that "the evidence suggests Eichmann was far more fanatical in carrying out his duties." He reminds us in an important footnote that Eichmann made repeated trips to Hungary to speed up the last-minute murder of nearly a million Jews, until then spared from shipment to the death camps. Not the act of the colorless paper shuffler, but of a fanatically eager exterminationist.

This is the nightmare Arendt fled from, the factual face of the perpetrators of the final solution, one that gives the lie to their self-serving statements on the witness stand facing execution.


Which, in the context of institutional evil in DW, backs the Doctor's POV that the excuse of "just doing my job" is merely a surface denial covering the far deeper reality of intentional evil for one's own benefit. Which makes constant engagement with morality all the more vital.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)
Oh, thanks for that! I haven't read that before, although I have read a few other critiques of Arendt's theory, and I'm quite familiar with the Bernstein argument that he refers to.

I do not, however, think that the "banality school", as he puts it, believes that the paper-shufflers are unaware of the atrocities going on-- the argument is simply that the motives for committing evil are not those that we would normally consider "monstrous"-- that, in certain social/cultural contexts, even the most normal motives can result in monstrous behaviours. I hear what he's saying about Eichmann's fanaticism, but I'd argue that while it's intense, fanaticism is itself fairly "banal" in the sense that it's a motive that a lot of people are familiar with.

I agree though, that Arendt's theory doesn't go far enough to addressing the issue of moral engagement, and I agree with everything in your final paragraph there.
unfolded73
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:52 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful, intelligent analysis. I started to think along these lines too, but got distracted by something shiny.

And I too started thinking about the soundtrack after this episode. Lovely music. Murray Gold is a god to me.
lefaym
Apr. 20th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
but got distracted by something shiny.

Like David Tennant's bottom? ;) Well okay, it's not that shiny (at least not in a suit) but it certainly is distracting.

*Goes back to look at your picspam... again*
bad_habit
Apr. 21st, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
I really liked this analysis.

I'd also like to note that when people in Soviet Russia were deported to Siberia, they were stuck in cattle wagons much like the Ood. Not quite across galaxies, but a long trip anyway.

Must go and get distracted by things now. Toodle pip!
elisi
Apr. 21st, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
This was fascinating. Thank you.
rusty_halo
Apr. 21st, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Excellent post. I was very pleased with how well this episode handled its metaphor. I was particularly glad that they made it clear that the entire society was complicit, rather than blaming a few "bad apples" and excusing everyone else. Solana worked so well because she is a figure of audience identification, and you can easily picture an AU version of the episode in which she joins the Doctor, but instead she (very realistically) chooses to shut her eyes to the horror that she is helping to perpetuate.
honorh
Apr. 21st, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
I thought back to BW/PotW during this episode myself. "We were just doing our jobs." "And with that statement, you just lost the right to even talk to me." No, the Doctor doesn't hold with that.

I think an essential ingredient of "the banality of evil" is an ever-increasing willingness to rationalize. "I know it's wrong, but I can't stop it myself, and I have mouths to feed." "This is just the way things go, and I'm just a cog in the machine." "It's not so bad, really. After all, if it were so bad, these people I admire wouldn't be a part of it, would they?" And from there, it's all to easy to slip into "They deserve it."

The removal of the Ood's hindbrains paralleled quite a few things, when you think about it. Lobotomies, genital mutilation, eunuchs--all rather nasty things.
honorh
Apr. 21st, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
BTW, as an Alaskan, I can assure you that snow can fall from a seemingly clear sky. Hoarfrost in the atmosphere sometimes falls in flakes.
skywaterblue
Apr. 21st, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure RTD admitted to using HDM as inspiration for "Doomsday", so it would not surprise me at all if HDM was also behind the Ood.

(I feel like I just spam essayed someone's journal about this very topic a couple of days ago.)
peasant_
Apr. 22nd, 2008 10:37 am (UTC)
Here via a link from selenak.

I've got nothing intelligent to say about the main part of your post beyond the fact that it is very interesting, thank you.

The blue sky was because they filmed it in summer on a very hot sunny day, the snow is all fake. Made from paper, apparently. But I have known snow to be falling in one place whilst it was sunny and blue sky a hundred yards away - just like rain clouds, snow clouds have to have edges - so you could explain it that way.
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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