Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fear of the Known

Downloading Threads before Christmas was stupid.

Watching the thing was suicidal.

The Sontaran's handful of people I know might actually read this may be advised to look away. This may spoil whatever yuletide joy there is - I know it did that to mine. But I was stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. This entry is very much a "get this crap out of my head" one, and perhaps best you avoid.

There are different forms of fear, of course. The fear of burning your hand on a hot surface is not at all the same as the fear of the Weeping Angels. There are rational fears and irrational fears. I myself have an irrational fear of cockroaches. Cockroaches - bar their ugly name - are about the dumbest thing to be scared of. They are not poisonous, nor are they aggressive, and incredibly clean as insects go (a neat trick which means they leave a trail of filth wherever they go, but still, no one's perfect). They aren't as evil or psychotic as other bugs - the praying mantis, those Wirrn-style wasps, funnel web spiders, trap door spiders...

What caused my fear of them?

TV and comic books. Usually involving people turning into humanoid cockroaches. But worst of all was Psirens, the episode of Red Dwarf, significantly one scene...

The Dwarfers find a black box recording left beside a corpse that has written the word PSIRENS in his own blood. And intestines. With his kidney as a full stop. The playback shows the corpse alive and terrified, explaining that "they" are storming the ship and killing everyone. A strange warbling chirping noise fills the air, and the astro turns to see THE BIGGEST FUCKING COCKROACH EVER shuffling towards him. It swats the astro to the ground and we hear the astro scream "GET THAT STRAW OUT OF MY EAR!" before the screaming starts. The screen is sprayed with gore as the cockroach straightens up, sucking something down its throat and chirping happily. Rimmer, unsurprisingly, faints.

Part of what freaks me out is hard to define. It is not the simple 'giant cockroaches suck out innocents' brains' angle, intimidating though it is. I watch the episode again (and laugh as I realize that the stuff sprayed over the screen was tomato sauce, as the astro's line "YOU SQUEEZED ALL THE SAUCE OUT OF MY BURGER, YOU EVIL HARLOT!" is hidden by the laughter track) and I find it creepy. Not scary.

There's a difference and one which I'm probably not describing very well. Looking back at Psirens, the Psirens themselves aren't so much scary as what they will do, but what they have done. The scene where Lister sees the asteroid belt is covered in derelict ships and notes he "has been lead here like lambs to the kebab shop" is scarier than what is effectively a guy in a rubber suit making an annoying chirping noise.

The same sort of fear gripped me in Image of the Fendahl, as our generic German mad scientist realizes that "we have been used - mankind has been used!". And again in a cut scene I read about where the Doctor, in The War Games, finds an inscription: SENTENCED TO DEATH. TRIAL A FAKE. WE ARE ALL BEING USED.

Maybe it's the fear of a lack of happy ending? Perhaps not the lack of a happy ending, but the sense the cavalry arrived too late. Its sobering that Robert Holmes' stories often invovled the Doctor overturning dictatorships overnight, and invariably said dictatorship had been in effect for centuries and millions upon millions could have been saved simply by the TARDIS arriving centuries earlier. There's nothing the Doctor can do for Cordo's family, or the poor wretches who found out about the War Games and died before they reveal the truth, or the Dwarfers for the Psirens' victims.

Is that what really scares me?

The "they never stood a chance" factor? The scariest factor about some of the murders in Xtro is that the victims did the sensible thing, the logical choice, their actions couldn't be faulted. And they got skewered like pigs for their pains. Blake's 7's final episode is sad, tragic, but is it scary? There are a billion fan fics that show things could have gone different 'if only'. The end result could have been avoided. The idea that nothing could have been done is scarier than the fact all our heroes are dead and forgotten.

They never stood a chance. Must mean they faced something unstoppable. And in my sci-fi-cult-comedy world, things are rarely unstoppable. Usually they are stopped by a passer by with a sonic screwdriver. I remember Utopia's Futurekind were rendered scarier than some other menaces in the season by the Doctor's reaction - he runs for his life. He can't reason with them, trick them, manipulate them, or even fight them. Even if Jack went machine gun crazy, they couldn't be stopped. The Futurekind aren't even defeated. All you can do is run away from them, and the dying cosmos they come from.

What the hell am I dribbling on, you might be asking (presumably passing the time after you've watched all your DVDs and kicked out the house guests).

Well, if you're my stalker, you might notice my little treatise on fear in The Enemy Within, in which I tried to capture every last bit of horror and terror I could. Partly inspired by nightmares I was having at the time even now, relatively well adjusted, the first episode creeps me out, and it's just the Doctor and Peri chatting in a wood. At night. Being watched. And in a later episode, the Doctor mentions the writing from The War Games and in a crude bit of transference reveals he is as creeped out by the words as I am.

Some of the plot of The Enemy Within comes from Ghostwatch, the BBC Halloween hoax that was so convincing the mass hysteria it caused lead to suicides. I found out about Ghostwatch on a rubbish DW fansite, listed as number 1 on a list "most terrifying television". I was a bit surprised at the complete lack of Doctor Who on the list, whereas Sapphire & Steel was boringly placed at 8 (and not the really scary eps, either, just the ones the reviewer remembered). But around number 4 was Threads.

So... I looked at it. Hmm. Some kind of Survivors-style docu-drama. Boo-friggen-hoo.

Sometimes I wonder about my brain and whether the way I react differently to people is good or bad. The sight of a gasmasked child did not disturb me in the slightest - yet the sight of a gasmasked horse was in the "cool and spooky" category. "Are You My Mummy?" proved irritating, not scary. In fact, it wasn't even interesting.

The Goodies have frightened me more than some "terrifying" films and shows. I mean, OK, there's the loud noises, sudden appearances and screaming death... but we're talking about half a second that barely makes me twitch. Torchwood: Countryside managed to be engaging, spooky, menacing. Until the episode ended, and no hook of any sort was left in my mind. It is ironic that comedy shows often scare me more than proper drama. Bottom's Out, where Richie and Eddie end up trapped in a tent with someone or something stalking their tent site is surprisingly scary (even when you find out its just a streaker having fun), or The New Office where the Goodies meet living construction machinery. Comedy and terror have the same roots after all - a monster in the closet is frightening the exact same way Mike the Cool Person in a closet is funny: they shouldn't be there.

But I can't find any comedy in Threads.

Even The Young Ones, who are about the only owner of a spoof of Threads, can't help. For the record, its Bomb, where Niel moans, "Oh no. Not the holocaust," with the passion of someone who's realized they've got to open a fresh packet of bog paper, "I'm off to get the incredibly informative and useful Protect And Survive Manual!" he then adds directly to camera. The joke is obvious. This manual of Niel's is completely and utterly useless, hence his blind faith that it can sort out anything is misplaced, ergo funny.

Was funny.

Not any more.

In The Enemy Within part three, in one rather nasty sequence, the Master tries to break Peri's spirit by telling her of a civilization he once ended for a laugh. It's a sequence that is no doubt typical of my work - compelling, well-told, with a fanwank reference to The Masters of Luxor, and also a complete rip off. The Master's description of the end of the world was based on the summary of Threads, with a few juicy descriptions added off the top of my head. The idea of the Master breaking up as he sees a shellshocked mother holding a dead baby was about the most disturbing idea I could have.

I didn't realize how close I was.

Anyway, to cut the story short. I see Threads is available for download. Since I have already homaged/ripped off the plot, I feel a vague desire to at least watch it and see if it's anyway as disturbing as promised. I downloaded it, pressed play, and was confronted with a spider spinning a web in disgusting close up. A HHGTTG-style narrator patronizes me with the metaphor of society as a web of threads, hence the title...

Boring, I think in my best Jekyll impersonation, and jump one hour into the movie.

I can't remember a more stupid thing I've done since jamming my hand into a moving bicycle chain. And I was eighteen months old at the time. What's my excuse now?

Do I need to tell you what I saw? What I watched? I don't want to rememeber.

It's simple enough to describe in a way. Sheffield, English town, 1980s. Everyone's minding their own business, when sirens go off. A missile strikes the next town, and the mushroom cloud climbs over the landscape. Panic erupts... and then the main salvo arrives.

And the world ends.

Not in one neat crisp flash. Oh no. That would be too simple.

Oh, it's literally painful to remember. Those sound effects I've heard in different places and different contexts. Explosions. Breaking Glass. Screaming. Judicious use of the mute button so everything becomes unreal and silent. The images. Oh man. Models... I'm sure they're models. Woolworths exploding. Fire. So much fire. A cat, a REAL cat, writhing in the ruins. Milk bottles burning. Corpses burning. So many screams.

Threads was banned from BBC television. The treatment 1960s Doctor Who got from them was a friendly punch on the arm compared to this. The TV equivalent of a jihad. They don't even sell the DVD in England. And the DVDs on sale are edited. What I have seen seem to be uncut.

It's a nasty montage. I've seen worse, surely? I mean, some figure hauling themselves over the rubble surrounded by flames is nasty, but easy to get over. But then, I see the survivors. The main characters I have not had to watch living their lives. But this lot have decided to follow Niel's "Protect and Survive" Manual. Hiding in basements, under makeshift shelters of doors and binbags. Blackened, stunned. The skin around their eyes are only clear because they keep crying.

Unbelievably, it gets worse. After the firestorms end, and the surface is vaguely habitable. Our heroine, Ruth, abandons her parents after a week underground. Radiation sickness in all its grim and grimy glory. The grandma is Chatham-style incontinent, then goes to sleep and doesn't wake up. The parents stay in the darkness, trying to keep their heads together. Ruth returns to the basement. We don't see what she finds, but we hear the buzzing of flies, see her react to a stench, and her parents never appear again.

But this is positively tame compared to Ruth's voyage through the ruins. Dead cats. Dead dogs. Bodies. Charcoal, human shaped lumps left screaming. Some of them have their dentures intact. A child running around calling desperately for his mother. A figure in a bandaged head shivering.

And then, guess what, that gag I made to show the Master is evil pays back.

And it's the woman holding the baby. The dead baby. The baby-shaped lump of charcoal. And the woman's wide, almost proud expression. Not saying a word. Almost a statue. And Ruth has to top it all off by flashing back to before the Bomb Dropped, where the woman was a fancy, uptight yuppie generally ignoring the baby, buried in consumer goods and the like. "Don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Guess that's about the worst of it for me.

The rest of the film depicts life afterwards. The bunker with all the government turns out to be their tomb - by the time a rescue team is organized the bunch of fat union reps and pen pushers have smoked themselves to dead, leaving the paperwork to give the new rule of Britain: if you work, you get some food. If you can't work, you starve. Cause everyone's radioactive and bound to die anyway.

The hospital turns out to be an even bigger nightmare. The walking wounded arrived at this medical station, only to discover no medicine or anaesthetic arrive, leading to lots of screams. LOTS of screams. And we're left with a metaphor for the whole film, in the scenes of outpatients, with scarred, dying people wrapped in soiled bandages and no medication. Or some other guy, dunno his name, leaving his excuse for a shelter to get his burned, blind and now half-insane wife some water. He goes to the rubble filled sink, turned the taps... and water comes out. The guy manages to get a grubby and distinctively unhygenic basin... and the water runs out. So he heads out into the wilderness outside and sees water dripping down a broken wooden beam over some rubble. So he grabs a handful... and spits it out. He heads back. The wife's dead, eyes wide and staring.

Sums up the film. There's no hope, but people keep trying anyway. The world is a living thing mortally wounded, and now dying painfully and slowly.

So, a quick fast forward to the end of the film.

Great Britain is not in what you're going to call good shape. The city's are still in ruins - since no one's been able to clear it up. The bodies are now skeletons picked clean, and even the rats and bugs are dying. Pretty much everyone who survived the bombing is dead, since they've all been prematurely aged and blinded by the fact the nuclear winter took away the ozone layer. In the fifteen years or so after the end of the world, Britain's still a police state where anyone who is a looter is killed. But now there's no more bullets, so they're hanged. Conversation is downhill, since the latest generation barely speak more than "givvitme" in regards to food, and the steam driven farm tractors are rather pointlessly trying to tend sterile, weevil-infested soil.

The movie ends in the ruined maternity wing of that hospital. It's a reasonably busy place, all things considered, but the nurses don't waste their time there, since all "babbies" are now stillborn, deformed and melt soon after birth. And would you believe it, we get to see such a thing happen as the last UK number one pop hit plays over the ruins.

So, yeah, watching this at the best of times was a dumb move.

Watching it two days before Christmas has got to me in a way I find... new. I find myself looking at the skies. Listening to the wind in the trees. Seeing people actually TALKING to each other. The world we live in seems unreal just after less than an hour of viewing a realplayer window. A world where people are actually starting to do things about global warming. A world where people pay attention to the international situation.

Maybe that's the biggest difference between us and the world with Threads. Because, cliche as it might sound, Threads looks real. It could really happen. Never before have I consciously had to tell myself "they are actors, this is a script, there are camera men there, no one is hurt... maybe those dead rats being sold, maybe..." The world, I tell myself, did not end in 1984 when this was made. It experienced NOTHING like that and so far, still hasn't. We weren't dumb enough to let this happen. Maybe because a film like this could be made, because people realized no one could win a nuclear war, because the one thing not kept secret was how terrible the destruction would be.

Hope springs eternal, and that is probably the only unrealistic thing about Threads. The world have lost everything. They have nothing to live for. NOONE to live for. Only the last few seconds show anything approaching a reason to go on, as a baby is born that the mother actually seems to care about.

And it's a dead, half-liquid blob that makes her scream.

No hope. No way out. And there never was a chance of either.

That's what's scared me.

So as Christmas approaches I urge anyone stupid enough to read this. Dumb as it sounds, half-watching a film terrified me and reminded me... or maybe just revealed to me... how incredibly lucky we are. We do not have to live not knowing if our friends and family survived. We don't have to dig through rubble. We have trees that are alive, and birds that live with them. Healthy children are alive who have futures.

I may only have caught a glimpse of a world without them (odd how seeing Skaro never effected me so), but it makes me realize how many of our problems are so petty. I actually got upset about being fired from a job I didn't enjoy with people I didn't like in a place I didn't want to go every day? Sparacus completely missing the point of his favorite show leaves me in a mindless fury? The realization it will most likely be a week before I can watch Voyage of the Damned?

It's petty! Pointless! Utterly irrelevent!

And thank any god you care to mention the world is so wonderful we can even imagine such trivialities, a world of trees, and animals, and Christmas, and love.

So, this is the Youth of Australia's Christmas address to the Nation.


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