Elusive in the same way as the secret truths of the universe. An interview with Philip Sandifer
Philip Sandifer is a writer who blogs and publishes under the banner of Eruditorum Press. His projects include the TARDIS Eruditorum series – an extensive cultural commentary on Doctor Who, The Last War in Albion, which tracks the history of British comic books, and The Super Nintendo Project. He kindly agreed to talk to me about his work, occultism as a tool of literary criticism, and Doctor Who.
You publish under the banner of Eruditorium Press, which until recently was just you, but has now expanded to include a host of other bloggers. How did this project start and what is its mission statement?
I’ve wanted to use the Eruditorum Press banner to publish people who aren’t me for a while – Jack Graham and I have talked about my putting something out by him a couple of times. And I knew Jane was looking into setting up a site for her work. And then I was talking to the Kevin and James about hosting and advertising, and it just seemed like it was probably the time to try my hand at it.
The mission statement’s pretty simple, on the whole, which is just to put interesting, thoughtful cultural commentary out there in the hopes that people enjoy it. And maybe pay the rent while we’re at it.
From what I’ve read of the other contributors’ work, there’s a big difference of interests and opinions – this will surely make for a diverse reading, but I’m curious if there are any uniting elements that tie your work together?
I’m not sure I’d say there’s a uniting element in an all-encompassing sense, but I think we all share a sensibility, to use the usual word for vaguely handwaving this sort of thing. We’re all interested in sci-fi/fantasy, we’re all particularly interested in British media, we’re all openly leftist and interested in the ways in which sci-fi/fantasy allows for the exploration of radicalism, and we’re all invested in longform work. So I think readers of one of us will end up appreciating the work of the others, even as we all maintain our distinct identities.
Moving on to the TARDIS Eruditorium, your critical history of Doctor Who and its wider cultural context: it seems to me that you very often defend stories that in the general opinion are just bad, that you try to redeem them, find something in them that makes them worthwhile after all. Is that something you think is important in your role as a critic?
I do, yes. I mean, there’s a real pleasure to the bad review – part of why I love Jack’s work is that he’s capable of being absolutely unsparingly brutal about things. But there’s so much art in the world that most of us don’t need any help identifying which bits are crap. So as much fun as writing and reading a really vicious bad review is, I think good reviews are probably the more important and worthwhile form.
But more than that, I think one of the most important things that we can do, as people, is to get better at enjoying and understanding new things. Art is how we learn empathy. And I think that’s really what the good review is for, once you get past the obvious function of recommendation: it helps teach us how to enjoy something new.
Plus, honestly, the impassioned defense of the overlooked classic is right up there with the savage takedown in the pantheon of inherently fun critical positions.
Your essays can at times be very elaborate – I’m thinking, for example, of the essay about Human Nature/The Family of Blood with sections crossed out and rewritten, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways with two parallel texts, and the frankly spectacular essay on Logopolis, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure journey through the qabbalistic Tree of Life. Why is form important to you?
I find that form is useful in producing new ideas. It changes the question you ask – instead of just “what’s the next paragraph here” it’s “OK, now how do I talk about Bad Wolf using some of the concepts or phrases I just used to talk about The Parting of the Ways?” And in some cases that can be easier – the same way that “what’s your Doctor Who story” can be a very hard question, but “what’s your favorite Patrick Troughton story” is much easier, and “what do you like more, Power of the Daleks or Evil of the Daleks” is downright simple.
It also helps get past the most obvious ideas. If you take something like Human Nature and just ask yourself “OK, what is there to say about this,” a bunch of things present themselves. You can talk about Tennant’s acting, or about humanizing the Doctor, or the moral critique, or the comparison of the two works. And it’s not that any of that is uninteresting, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been said a dozen times about the story, because it’s the same stuff everyone sees when they look at it. So by forcing yourself to come at the story from a different angle you force yourself to actually come up with new things to say.
You’ve published a book called Recursive Occlusion, which reworks the aforementioned essay on Logopolis into an account of how the Western occult tradition manifests in Doctor Who, sometimes, I’d say, moving beyond what could be called a direct influence (e.g. though the War Doctor absolutely works as a representation of the fifth Sephirot, that’s not necessarily what Steven Moffat intended). This begs, I think, a broader question: why is occultism useful when interpreting art?
There’s a kind of long tradition of the humanities being the last refuge of otherwise discredited ideology. In literary studies, which was the academic discipline I pursued, Marx and Freud are still taken seriously in ways they’re just not elsewhere. And I think occultism is kind of the ultimate in that – a field of study so completely discredited not even the humanities take it seriously.
And I think that’s important, honestly. As I said earlier, I think criticism really has to show you things that weren’t necessarily obvious. And for all that these approaches fall short in terms of strict empiricism, I think they retain a lot of attraction. I’m not sure Freud did a great job of understanding many actual people, but man, he understands Hamlet well. And for all the failings of Marxist governments – and obviously a Polish readership is going to have a more acute understanding of that than I do – I think he captures what it feels like to be a relatively poor worker under capitalism like nobody else. So they’re good for finding new ways of looking at things, especially art, which isn’t bounded by empiricism anyway.
So I’m drawn to occultism, as an interpretive method, for many of the same reasons. There’s something about the idea that there’s some sort of lost, hidden order to things that’s just immediately compelling. Even if it’s just the human instinct for pattern recognition firing blindly at the random noise of an ultimately meaningless universe, which I don’t rule out, the sense of some almost present truth that slips out of reach whenever you grasp at it is fundamentally compelling. And so it’s a useful way to get at stories; especially because art tends to be elusive in exactly the same way as the secret truths of the universe.
While we’re on the subject of occultism: you have also launched another blog project – a series of Super Nintendo games reviews that is also a spell designed to destroy Gamergate. If the TARDIS Eruditorum was a spell, what would it do?
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t want to suggest that “a magical ritual to destroy Gamergate” is a phrase I utter without a certain awareness of the absurdity to it.
But in terms of TARDIS Eruditorum, at least in a practical sense, it was to establish me as a credible writer with a fanbase willing to support my work to an extent that lets me do this as my full-time job. I mean, that is the work and change it brought around in my life, and I’m always going to take it seriously in that regard.
Of course, the flip side of taking it seriously is that it ended up being a love letter to the progressive tradition of British politics and identity that finished three months before a Tory majority government got voted in, so, you know. Humility.
One of the concepts central to your reading of Doctor Who is alchemy, understood as – if one sentence can serve at least as a provisory definition – the pursuit of enlightenment by transforming that which is base and impure into that which is pure and holy. And yet the road to this spiritual goal leads through, as you termed it, “material social progress”. I’m interested in the interplay between the two – how do they fit together and what’s Doctor Who’s function in all of this?
Well, on one level Doctor Who’s function is to hold all of this together. Alchemy is an idiosyncratically prominent theme in Doctor Who, due largely to it being what David Whitaker, the first script editor of Doctor Who, turned to whenever he needed some technobabble. And then there’s a line about it in The Brain of Morbius that led me, when writing about that story, to make the suggestion that within Doctor Who, the secret of alchemy is material social progress. Which felt like a nice way of tying together the show’s sense of social commentary with its oddball mystical bent.
As for why history and alchemy go so well together, it’s tempting to joke that history’s another discredited ideology. But more seriously, alchemy has two basic principles: “as above, so below” and “solve et coagula,” or dissolve and coagulate. The first basically means that what happens on the large scale happens on the small scale, while the second is just the idea of breaking things down and building them together. And I think both of those just feel like close cousins of the historical process. I mean, if you want to get down to it, the idea of history as a process of spiritual enlightenment is just me quietly ripping off Hegel.
If we are talking about Doctor Who and the historical process, we should also talk about politics. Insofar as Doctor Who can be said to have a coherent set of politics, how would you characterize them?
I mean, the truth of it is that they’re the sort of bland “all things to everyone” status quo politics of the BBC. Except that there’s a kind of noble tradition at the BBC of taking counterculture and the avant garde seriously, as part of the “all things to everyone” mandate, and even making those things accessible. And I think Doctor Who, with its “ordinary London schoolteachers on an alien world” aesthetic of juxtaposition, has always been one of the vehicles through which the BBC most easily explores the avant garde and the weird. So for all that it’s the epitome of bourgeois liberalism, it’s got a sort of constant sympathy for the idea that maybe the best thing would just be to burn the world down for fun. Which, of course, so does bourgeois liberalism.
For a variety of reasons the Doctor Who-related media (novels, Big Finish plays etc.) are not very popular amongst Polish fans – there’s even been a bit of a discussion recently in parts of the fandom about the ways they could be encouraged to try out comics, novels, or audio plays. From my perspective, one of the most important concerns is whether the expanded universe has genuinely interesting and important stories to tell about the Doctor, or it’s just a promotional product for the TV series. How do you view the relationship between the show and other Doctor Who media?
Oof. I mean, I’m going to disappoint so many people here, but honestly, the show is the best Doctor Who, and everything else is a sort of methadone for when the show’s off the air. Which is admittedly all but about twelve hours a year, so there’s a real need for it among we hardcore addicts. So no, I don’t think it’s promotional as such. I mean, I don’t think anyone is coming to the TV series through Big Finish.
But there is less quality control across the expanded universe stuff. You know, there’s brilliant stuff there – going back to David Whitaker’s novelization of The Daleks, which was probably actually a bit better than the original. But there’s a lot of mediocrity as well, especially with something like Big Finish that, if we’re being honest, produces way more stuff than is remotely reasonable.
You are a big fan of Steven Moffat’s writing. What would you say is his greatest strength and – to provide at least a little challenge – his greatest weakness as a writer?
I think his greatest weakness is in some ways the easier one, because, yes, I’m a massive fan and I think he’s one of the best writers in television – he belongs on lists with [Dennis] Potter and [Joss] Whedon and [David] Simon. But he is, in the end, one guy, with one guy’s set of interests and influences. And so even something like Listen, which I thought was brilliant, you look at and go “yep, there’s all the Steven Moffat standards.” There’s always a box you’re never going to break out of as a writer, but I think it’s fair to say there are writers who do a better job of not drawing attention to that box than Moffat.
But man, strengths. I mean, at this point, especially coming off of Season Eight, just that his work still feels fresh. And yes, that’s down to incredible performances from Capaldi and Coleman, that’s down to some of the amazing directors they’ve had. But it’s still incredible. To have your fifth year on a program feel as exciting and new as your first is genuinely a mark of genius. And he’s had the same sense of pushing himself and trying new things on Sherlock. I don’t think there’s an episode with Moffat’s name on it that doesn’t have at least one moment where you sit up and go “OK, that’s interesting.”
And lastly: as the interview is conducted, we’re on the brink of the second Peter Capaldi season. His reception was mostly positive, although from my perspective also quite polarizing, mostly due to the marked shift in tone and the difficult persona of the new Doctor. You sit firmly in the first camp, going as far as writing: “At this point, the last five can all be as bad as Fear Her and this will still be my favorite season of Doctor Who ever” in your Kill the Moon review. Do you still feel that way? And if so – why?
I do. Now, of course, that’s helped by the fact that the last five included Mummy on the Orient Express, Dark Water, and Death in Heaven, all of which were brilliant, and Flatline and In the Forest of the Night, which both had significant flaws, but were still wonderful and clever. So, you know, I was lucky not to be tested in that commitment to five weeks of Fear Her.
But after writing thousands of words a week about Doctor Who for four years, all I really want out of the program is something new. Something that feels as unlike anything you’ve ever seen before as The Web Planet, Power of the Daleks, Terror of the Autons, The Ark in Space, City of Death, Kinda, Paradise Towers, or Rose did when they aired. And I think every week, Season Eight delivered. I think some bits worked better than others, both on a moment-to-moment level and on an episode-to-episode level. But I think in both senses even its clunkers were pretty good, and its high points were simply astonishing. I mean, it’s really a special sort of season when even the naff celebrity historical is good.
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