by A. Enigma
EPCOT. Everyone knows Epcot; Disney World’s second gate, a self proclaimed ‘Permanent World’s Fair’ that bores children with its slow educational dark rides while their parents get drunk in World Showcase and is for some reason getting a Guardians of Galaxy ride. But few people know what it was originally intended to be by the man himself, Walt Disney.
The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: perhaps Disney’s most frustrating acronym and Walt’s original reason for buying up a patch of Florida swamp twice the size of Manhattan. His idea for the area was to build a Utopian city of the future where people would live and captains of industry would be encouraged to set up shop and use it place as a testing ground for their new inventions and ideas. It would serve as a shining example to other American cities of how technology could be used to better the lives of all.
Walt would work on his plans for his dream city to the day he dies and the company would shelve the project, still early in its development, no longer having Walt’s ambition to to make it work.
But, while the idea would never come to fruition in reality, Disney did tap upon it in film form with their 2015 film Tomorrowland. Only having it be in another dimension instead of on Earth. And naming it after the section of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom parks instead of Epcot (because frankly, Tomorrowland sounds cooler). And not having it be Walt’s dream child and giving only the vaguest implication that he had anything to do with the city at all. ….none of which is the least bit important here. Whatever.
Anyway, the important thing is the movie’s iconic scene, or at least the scene the film’s promotional stuff heavily relied on, that of a young girl standing in a field of wheat looking off in the distant at a gleaming white citadel that contains all the hopes and the dreams of the past and the present. It’s really quite wonderful.
Now I know what you’re think: what in God’s name does this have to with Doctor Who?
Let’s jump tracks and focus on the second episode of series ten, “Smile“. It’s Bill’s first proper trip in the TARDIS with the Doctor and she has only one request: to see if the future is a happy one and one the Doctor happily acquiesces too. The TARDIS soon materializes in the middle of a field of wheat, and in the distance, a gleaming white citadel that contains all the hopes and the dreams of the past and the present. It’s really quite wonderful.
See? Now my earlier remarks are making a bit of sense, aren’t they?
Of course, this hasn’t been officially confirmed or anything, but given that the filming location for the city is in reality surrounded by the city of Valencia, Spain and not an endless field of wheat, I’m taking a stab in the dark that this is probably an intentional homage to the Disney film. And if it isn’t, eh, the movie just an easy connecting point between Smile and EPCOT for me and it’s largely redundant in the long run anyway.
So what is my point then? What is my reasons behind trying to connect these two things beyond having an excuse to talk about two of my obsessions at once? Well, it’s tied to these two lines the Doctor says in Smile:
Look at this building. Look at it. You know what I like about humanity? Its optimism. Do you know what this building is made of? Pure, soaring optimism
No one had ever died here before this lady. The Vardies, they’d never heard of grief before. This place is all about hope and the future, and happiness. No one ever thought about the opposite.
And, honestly, I just think that Walt’s original idea for Epcot happens to represent this perfectly. Much like how things were not really quite wonderful in the city in “Smile” as the Vardies killed the people they were meant to make happy simply because they didn’t know how to deal with the opposite, you can already see the cracks in this Utopia of Progress in the initial concept we have of it. It was intended that the people who would live would have to work for the Disney company with no choice in the matter, either in the city or the Magic Kingdom park Walt was forced to build to get the uncreative businessmen to agree to fund the building the city. They wouldn’t own their homes either and, what’s more, having to put up with the possibility of returning home from work or school to find that all the appliances and fixtures of their apartments have been swapped out with new ones while they were away in the name of testing the new innoventions (cue Portal reference here). Their everyday lives would be spent as little more than a presentation to sell one man’s dream to the uncaring business elite.
But even then, I can’t find it in myself to fault Walt for the idea. He certainly had good intentions here, even if he was letting his ambitions far outstrip him and what could be called decent. Despite it all, he was the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes, and the dreamer of improbable dreams. That’s what he built his company around, for good and for ill. Yes, he had his faults and I’m sure it’s not at all difficult to uncover any number of shady things he did in his life (he was himself a businessman after all), but this is still what he’s remembered for above all else.
The problem’s just that he let his optimism blind him to reality. Let it blind him to the fact that people are complex beings that aren’t necessarily going to agree to being a billboard family.
And that is ultimately what “Smile” is. It’s a deconstruction of this kind of blind optimism, showing the dangers of blocking out the hard truths of life beyond it. In the end of the episode, the Doctor would introduce the Vardies to the concept of capitalism to fix the problem of the it; a concept they would deconstruct and decry three episodes later in “Oxygen“. And while we’ll never know just how Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow would’ve truly panned out had Walt lived to see its completion, we can certainly assume that he would’ve had to make many creative compromises to make it work for him, the businessmen, and the people who would live there, possibly leaving the city as only a passing resemblance to his original plan.
But let’s put Disney and Epcot aside as we reach our conclusion and focus purely on what Smile’s message truly meant. A more nihilistic person might say it means that ultimately, the only way to have an ideology based society work is to introduce controlled evils in order to prevent uncontrolled ones from taking root, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. I think it means that building societies on ideologies are where faults like that comes from. Certainly, you should use optimism and hope for progress as a tool to build your new society, but not as the foundation itself.
And so at the end I’ll leave you with this, while blind optimism can be a dangerous thing, it’s always good to remain cautiously optimistic. Like how I remain cautiously optimistic that the Imagineers will make Guardians of the Galaxy fit in with the theme of Epcot’s Future World.
Enigma is someone who really doesn’t know how to describe herself beyond being non-binary, but still working out the whole pronoun thing. So, um … to all who come to this happy place, welcome, Disneyland is your land.