These Unofficial 1980s Doctor Who Films Blazed a Trail

February 21, 2024

For all that fans have, and will ever continue to, argue about what is canon in the world of Doctor Who, the fact remains that it is a world of fuzzy edges, edges will only get fuzzier now that Russell T Davies has introduced “the Doctor-verse”. The TV series itself is like a piece of […]

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When the first trailer for Alex Garland’s Civil War dropped several months ago, many viewers were immediately put on edge by visions of war-torn cityscapes, or clouds of smoke billowing above small towns. Mind you, this sadly looks like the nightly news on nearly any given Tuesday. However, in Garland’s hands, these “reports” were occurring in the good ol’ US of A. The call was coming from inside the house.

Others, however, were somewhat bemused by the first trailer, at least as judged by social media posts or our comments section. Skeptics decried the incredulity of the film’s so-called “Western Alliance,” which is apparently an unlikely confederacy between the states of California and Texas. Admittedly, these two states would make strange bedfellows in the modern political landscape. Yet there was an uncanny verisimilitude about the prospect, at least in this writer’s mind. That eerie believability has now become more tangible with the release of the second Civil War trailer in which we get a better idea of how anarchy and chaos has descended into A24’s dystopian prophecy for tomorrow.

“People of the Florida Alliance and the Western Forces of Texas and California,” Nick Offerman’s unnamed President of the United States intones. “You’ll be welcomed back to these United States as soon as [your] illegal, secessionist government is deposed.”

Slowly the picture Garland is painting is coming into focus, and it notably does not look like the real American Civil War that occurred between 1861 and 1865. It does, however, look a lot like what far-right militias have been salivating over for years in online chat rooms, across backwoods training grounds, and in the halls of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021. It’s not (exactly) a blue versus gray reckoning that is being imagined, or even purely a depiction of red states fighting blue states; it’s a messy community-by-community descent into social breakdown, anarchy, and chaos. And it could be a lot closer than we care to admit.

As Politico Magazine’s Steven Simon and Robert E. Wilhelm unpacked in “The Threat of Civil Breakdown Is Real” last year: “Large-scale civil collapse need not involve the concerted efforts of a critical mass of people. For every Northern Ireland, there is a Somalia. Purposeful militias aren’t required, only spiraling acts of violence by small numbers of people that may originate spontaneously but, fueled by retaliation, develop their own momentum.”

To put a finer point on it, political scientist Barbara F. Walter discussed her book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them with The Washington Post in 2022, during which she pointed out the CIA developed a Political Instability Task Force in the ‘90s, and the organization created a model intended to quantify data from hundreds of civil wars during the 20th century. But what they found wasn’t that ethnicity, religion, or even income inequality was the best precursor to intramural conflict. It was, ultimately, the stability of a government, be it democratic or authoritarian, with the no man’s land in between—an anocracy or semi-democracy—cultivating the destabilization of institutions.

“There’s this nonprofit based in Virginia called the Center for Systemic Peace,” Walter said. “And every year it measures all sorts of things related to the qualities of governments around the world. How autocratic or how democratic a country is. And it has this scale that goes from negative 10 to positive 10. Negative 10 is the most authoritarian, so think about North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. Positive 10 are the most democratic… The U.S. was a positive 10 for many, many years. It’s no longer a positive 10.”

During the Trump presidency, the U.S. was rated as a “positive 5,” although it has since gone up to “positive 8.” While not a complete collapse, this is an uncomfortable waver, and as Walter noted, the realm between “positive 5” and “negative 5” suggests an instability where a democracy’s institutions are crumbling (or a strongman’s authoritarian grip is weakening). This breeds conflict.

“What scholars found was that this anocracy variable was really predictive of a risk for civil war,” Walter said. “Full democracies almost never have civil wars. Full autocracies rarely have civil wars. All of the instability and violence is happening in this middle zone.”

Notably, the U.S. is not currently in that place, but Garland and A24 are purposefully releasing their fanciful Civil War during an election year where one of the likely candidates has already promised he wants to act as a dictator “for one day,” and where faith in the institutions that helped usher in a pseudo-Pax Americana, like NATO, appears to be increasingly in decline.

A civil war doesn’t need to be one single military force attempting to attack or divorce itself from another; it can be disparate forces, groups, or even states with competing interests which collectively take advantage of chaos and grievance. It can, maybe, even look like Jesse Plemons in Elton John sunglasses sporting an assault rifle.

Civil War enters theaters on April 12, 2024.

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