On being the villain


Every dalek ever

Anyone who has even the vaguest idea about Doctor Who – the British Sci-fi TV series which has been going almost as long as I have – is familiar with the Daleks. The Doctor has grappled with many foes over that timespan, but the Daleks are the classic adversaries. However often the Doctor regenerates, the Daleks are right there to take him on again. You’d think they’d give it up as a bad job.

But of course they can’t. The Daleks have a simple mandate: to exterminate all other life-forms, wherever they may be. Luckily for us, here on Earth at least the Doctor has our back. But you do wonder just what it is about the Daleks that makes them such an evergreen opponent, one that every version of the Doctor has to face over and over again. It certainly isn’t for want of alternatives.

I think it’s because, like all really good villains, they show us an aspect of ourselves. After all, we are responsible for the Sixth Extinction of life on this planet. The fact that we aren’t traversing the galaxy wiping out non-human life on other planets is more to do with technical difficulties around interstellar travel than any squeamishness on our part. We are certainly very intolerant of the other species with whom we share the planet, even when they don’t particularly inconvenience us. I have no idea what anyone ever had against the passenger pigeon, but we exterminated them anyway.

Daleks are also a fusion of the biological and mechanical. Usually you only see the external armour, as shown in the picture above, but occasionally the series offers a glimpse of the squid-like creature that lurks within. This is another home truth about the way we live, at least those of us who have bought into the promises of industrial civilisation. Is a Dalek that different from a motorist, when it comes down to it? Both, after all, are just intelligent life-forms in a metal box with a gargantuan sense of entitlement.

But isn’t that always the way with alien invaders from outer space? Don’t they always have basically the same agenda? We’ve seen this over and over again, especially in the movies. The aliens – and all we ever really know about them is that They Came From Somewhere Else (which would serve well enough as the title of a 50s B-movie) – arrive on Earth, usually in the USA and sometimes right on the White House lawn, intent on nothing more than death and destruction. Sometimes it’s explained that They Want Our Stuff for some more or less contrived reason, but everyone knows that’s just a pretext for the death and destruction.

Now part of this is just the fact that death and destruction make for spectacular cinema, especially now we have CGI. But also a part of this surely is just recapitulating what Europeans have historically done on other continents, especially (but not only) the Americas. When Francisco Pizzaro landed in Peru, he definitely wanted Their Stuff, especially the shiny bits. The effects on the local population would surely have met with Dalek approval.

We are all, in fact, at least potentially super-villains. I am typing these words on a machine whose manufacture certainly involved a lot of death and destruction, both in the human and non-human worlds. The electricity to make the thing go will have involved more death and destruction. Industrial civilisation, considered as a whole, might as well be a full-scale invasion of this planet by Daleks, from the point of view of most of the non-Dalek life-forms living on it. Or, in the case of the passenger pigeon, no longer living on it.

Now to some extent we are all now bound by decisions made by other people in our past, not all of whom were clairvoyants. When Colonel Edwin Drake drilled his famous oil-well back in the 1850s, it need not have led to the Exxon Valdez. Watt’s steam engine was not designed to screw the planet, although indirectly it ended up doing so. The lives we live today are inextricably bound up with a wealth of toxic practices, most of which we manage to ignore, because to be fully aware of what your daily life in this civilisation entails is to jeopardise your sanity.

Of course, we can choose instead to embrace our inner destructive alien, and plenty of people do that. This involves pretending that all that exists is Us and Stuff. Because we are Us, we have the right – indeed, according to some the duty – to take All the Stuff. This is essentially the premise of mainstream economics, amongst other things. It is at this point that I carefully abstain from mentioning Jeff Bezos, to pick one name from many, mostly for legal reasons. But you are, I hope, following along.

I’ve been expecting you, Mr Bezos.

The problem with all this, of course, that there are other things in the world than Us and Stuff. There are Others. The people who wonder about whether there is other (other?) intelligent life in the universe have not been paying much attention to the world around them. (I refer interested readers to Derrick Jensen’s book The Myth of Human Supremacy (Seven Stories Press, 2016); read it and weep.) Some of these Others, it turns out, do some things that are actually quite convenient for us, such as putting oxygen into the atmosphere.

Even if they didn’t, though, are we really justified in stomping Others out of existence just because they aren’t Us? This is quite an urgent question, given that we seem to be doing exactly that at unprecedented rates. Human beings have certainly got long-standing form in this area, by some accounts, but it doesn’t seem on the face of it that we have no choice in this. If you start from the observation that we are essentially a subspecies of chimpanzee with delusions of grandeur, it clearly doesn’t follow; our cousins have been around for a good long while, and as far as I know they are not responsible for the death of a single species.

Google is not my favourite corporation in the world. I use their email service, but not their advertising search engine. Even so, they tried their best originally with their mission statement: “Don’t be evil.” There are worse words to live by. Think about them, the next time you’re shopping for ant killer.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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