Blakespotting: Outcasts and William Blake’s “The Tyger”

I have just been catching up with a new BBC series, Outcasts, which has attracted mixed attention in press reviews and caught my eye after friends began telling me that the first series made use of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”, first published as one of his Songs of Experience in 1794. While I shall try to avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, that’s not entirely possible in the brief analysis that follows.

Outcasts, which began filming in 2007, is currently being shown on BBC One and is on the second episode out of eight. Set on another planet Carpathia (so named after the ship that rescued some of the survivors from the Titanic) in a not-too-distant future, it depicts the struggles of a group of pioneers attempting to establish a better future following nuclear devastation on Earth. Personally, I find it at best of middling interest as a drama: much of the dialog is somewhat stilted, many cast members are rather flat or unintentionally comic in their delivery, and the action scenes are occasionally risible thus failing to create any real tension – none of which is helped by an intrusive musical score. Undoubtedly the producers have attempted to exploit the interest roused by the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, and if that was not their deliberate intention then it is not helped by the presence of Jamie Bamber (playing Mitchell Hoban here, a role very different to that of Apollo in BG).

Despite these criticisms, however, it is clear that some potentially interesting moral dilemmas are being played out, even if the handling of those dilemmas is somewhat clumsy. The reference to Blake is very explicit – and sustained – throughout the first episode, “The Independents”. The very first dialogue that we hear is the first two lines of “The Tyger”, and parts of the first stanza are repeated twice more. Linus Hoban, the child who delivers those lines (in a fashion, I’m afraid, that does very little credit to Blake’s verse), by failing to articulate the words “fearful symmetry” halfway through the programme draws attention to the significance of this phrase. In a manner similar to Alan Moore’s use of the famous phrase in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, “fearful symmetry” is meant to indicate to the viewer the contraries and opposites in operation throughout the episode: as Hoban is killed, his wife dies at the same moment, dying from his assault just as one of her friends kills him. Similarly, Hoban is clearly intended to stand in rebellious opposition to Richard Tate, and the struggle between Hoban and his wife over their sun reminded me to a degree of Blake’s famous print of the struggle of the good and evil angels over a child.

That such readings are not entirely supposition is indicated by the (finally) rather dramatic exposition of the first verse of “The Tyger” by Linus as he watches a spaceship exploding in the sky overhead. As he recites the opening lines, reiterating once again that phrase “fearful symmetry”, so any viewer with a knowledge of the poem will almost certainly call to mind the penultimate stanza as they watch meteoric fragments streaking in flame through the air:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

As soon as Linus speaks, the camera cuts to a vision of the exploding craft which has jettisoned its escape pods, inside which is an ominous figure, Julius Berger, who had overseen the original evacuation from Earth. His face red lit from the emergency lights, he is (extremely unsubtly) cast as a diabolic figure. The unspoken part of Blake’s poem, of course, refers to the war in heaven as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and when Berger assumes his full role in episode two of Outcasts there is something politically satanic about him: like Milton’s adversary, he has fallen from heaven to a bleak world and is clearly to be established as the primary antagonist of the series.

Berger’s satanic figure also brings with it Blakean references, particularly the character of Satan in Milton a Poem. Like Blake’s Satan, he appears to others as though motivated by religion and pity. Palamabron’s remarks on Satan in Milton are also applicable to Berger:

You know Satans mildness and his self-imposition,
Seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother
While he is murdering the just[.]

Other Blakean allusions may take in the related poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Boy Lost” and “A Little Girl Lost”, as Linus is taken into the wilderness by his father and Lily Isen is captured by clones after her escape pod lands in the desert. While this particular echo may be a particular misprision on my part, Hoban’s eulogies to liberty throughout episode 1, and the paternal authority of President Tate, certainly brings to mind the struggles of Orc and Urizen – and there may also be a subtle reference to Bladerunner, another film about cloned slaves which has a famous (mis)citation of Blake’s America by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc. (My emphasis)

Outcasts does not come close to Bladerunner – nor the new Battlestar Galactica: it is frequently portentous (and somewhat pretentious) rather than profound. It is not entirely without merit, however, and while a few commentators have been irritated by the Blakean quotation it is fascinating to me as another example of “The Tyger” as part of what Simon During called “the global popular”. Not every viewer, I am sure, will read as deeply as I do into these few, repeated lines, but on a personal level I find it heartening that, according to writer Ben Richards, when citizens of 2040 need to frame their own sense of the fearful sublime it will be to Blake that they turn.

Blakespotting: Red John and Blake’s Tyger in The Mentalist

Somewhat belatedly, I have recently been taking an interest in the CBS series The Mentalist, my attention having been drawn to a Blakean allusion in the final episode of season two.

For those who have not had a chance to see it yet, The Mentalist is a police procedural series set in Sacramento, following an independent consultant, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), who uses his skills as a psychic medium to investigate crimes. This hokum is given a certain pleasant cynicism by being revealed to be a con on Jane’s part, though it lands him in considerable trouble after he claims that those skills helped police profile a serial killer named Red John.

Jane uses talents for hyper-observation in the Dumas-Holmes school of detective work to uncover crimes, but it is Red John, the main antagonist, who is probably of most interest to Blake spotters. Having killed Jane’s wife and daughter, he becomes Jane’s arch-enemy, considering himself a showman and artist who leaves his signature “crying smiley” drawn with the blood of his victims. The connection with Blake comes at the end of season two, in the episode “Red Sky in the Morning”. Rescuing Jane from two copycat killers, but keeping his face hidden behind a mask, he recites the first stanza of “The Tyger” to Jane before leaving. You can see the scene at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnzc4IyQfag.

There has been a rather persistent connection between Blake and serial killers for some time now, the most famous being Hannibal Lecter (who employs Blakean motifs) and Francis Dolarhyde, the antagonist of the first Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Other examples of this link include Michael Dibdin’s novel Dark Spectre, which deals with a murderous cult built up around Blake’s works, and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, in which Jack the Ripper/Sir William Gull cites Blake as an explanation for the esoteric motives behind his murder. The best of these writers understand that to use Blake in such a way is an obvious perversion of Blake’s philosophy, but in popular imagination it sometimes appears that the proverb of hell, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”, has been taken as an injunction to commit any atrocity rather than to avoid the cause of such perversity in the first place, the nursing of those unacted desires.

Red John is clearly of that category of intelligent, even artistic, sociopath that is so beloved of fiction, and by citing “The Tyger” we are obviously intended to understand his actions as being beyond normal conceptions of good and evil, a pop-version of the Nietzschean superman. I’ve always been extremely sceptical of this tendency to view Blake as some sort of proto-satanic antihero, and there is a certain melancholy for me in the fact that one of the most pacifist of the Romantic writers has frequently been invoked to support what far too often is the banality of evil. Blake’s radical Christianity is far more of a challenge (particularly for a secular atheist such as myself, though I take a certain wry pleasure in the fact that Blake would have seen many Christians as worshiping the god of this world).

In programs such as The Mentalist, then, Blake is a shorthand cipher, a means of generating instant depth and relative profundity: a dash of mysticism, a splash of obscurity and suddenly the villain becomes much more interesting. Despite my own sarcasm here, I am (as always) immensely pleased to see this particular zoamorph on the screens, demonstrating just why Blake can work as such a cipher because of his popularity, and The Mentalist‘s combination of psychic hokum and rationalist demystification (neither of which is allowed entirely to gain the upper hand over the other) gives the program a particular edge that raises it above plenty of other detective shows. In every series, Jane parades his scepticism over every aspect of paranormal activities, displaying an unorthodox yet still slightly Urizenic rationalism; by asking him the immortal question of who dares frame the tyger’s fearful symmetry, Red John dissolves such certainty and shows some of the fragility of Jane’s reasonable world view.

Blakespotting: William Blake and Spooks

As I have only ever caught one or two episodes of Spooks, this post is just a brief summary of an article on the Spooks Fan Blog. You can read the longer article at http://spooksfanblog.com/2010/06/10/lucas-north-and-william-blake/.

Spooks began in 2002 on the BBC and is due to return for its ninth series in Autumn 2010. Of interest here is the character of Lucas North (played by Richard Armitage) who joined the show in series 7. North is an MI5 agent who had been caught and held in a Russian prison for eight years before being released in a spy exchange.

In prison, North has had his body covered with tattoos, including the words Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself) across his stomach and Blake’s Ancient of Days on his chest. He also decorates his flat with Blake paintings and, according to his ex-wife, is said to be a devotee of Blake because he distrusts systems.

A more detailed reading of North’s character, as well as some information on Armitage’s interest in Blake, can be found on the Spooks Fan Blog.