Thursday, September 4, 2014
Sensor Scan: Doctor Who
Let's be realistic here. Nobody reading this needs me to explain to them what Doctor Who is. It is, as of this writing, arguably the biggest, most talked about, most beloved and most overanalyzed television show on the air today. It has a cultural weight that utterly demolishes everything else remotely comparable, and regularly sweeps the science fiction awards shows year after year partially because it's the only science fiction show left on TV. As I write this I'm coming off of the franchise's fiftieth anniversary in 2013, a year where it absolutely dominated entertainment headlines and was an omnipresent sight in every store, at every convention, and in every neighbourhood. Doctor Who currently has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-level of media presence, so trying to historicize it in any way feels bemusing and inauthentic. You know what this is, I know what this is, let's not kid ourselves.
It's not that I'm bitter or jealous, it's just that Doctor Who is not a cultural phenomenon that I'm along for the ride with. I occasionally watched the New Series off and on between 2005 and 2012, but I eventually just lost interest in it completely and it's not something I have any sort of emotional investment in. Doctor Who interests me mostly at an academic level: The current phenomenon is sort of fun for me to watch unfold as it reminds me a bit of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was like in the early 1990s, but now I'm on the other side of the glass, as it were. But also, as many critics, including many of my personal friends, have pointed out, Doctor Who is a show that does some very clever things with things like narrative and metatext and, thanks to a handful of the architects who worked on it in formative years, inherits a relatively unique kind of progressive edge. I'm not going to go into a ton of detail about that here, because there are people who can explain it far better than me and have dedicated a not-insignificant part of their lives to doing just that. You could go ahead and check out, say, Phil Sandifer, Jack Graham, Andrew Hickey, Alex Wilcock or the co-hosts of the Pex Lives! podcast.
What I will talk about is my history with the franchise and what we can glean about Star Trek through looking at it. The Doctor Who I remember is an unusual thing: It's not the show itself, even though it was on the air at the time. It was more the production stills I saw in the articles where Starlog Magazine would go behind the scenes of the Classic Series and, in particular, it was interviews they did with Jon Pertwee and his thoughts on what the show meant to him. Because Starlog also covered stuff like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Z-list Sean Connery movies and Pertwee's tenure on the show was deliberately modeled after spy-fi action movies, it all kinda got mixed together in my mind. So, my earliest understanding of Doctor Who was not a madman with a box who could go anywhere in time and space and change his appearance at will, it was of Jon Pertwee wearing a flamboyant cape and smoking jacket driving around in an ancient hot rod squaring off against mad scientists in the English countryside. It didn't strike me as anything particularly different then any of the other contemporary spy-fi stuff starring charismatic secret agent action heroes, apart from being proudly and idiosyncratically British.
But at the same time, I was also aware of another show called Doctor Who. I didn't know much about it except it apparently was about this weird guy who wore a hat and a pointlessly long scarf who traveled around in a phone booth time machine and that my mother really, *really* thought I needed to see it. Why it took me so long to connect this show with the *other* science fiction show suspiciously called Doctor Who, I have no idea. Either way, I finally got to see an episode when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up reruns of the show sometime in the mid-1990s. And, well, it didn't do much for me, to be honest.
It was the Scarf Guy, not the Secret Agent Guy, but I didn't see a phone booth time machine and he was still running around the English countryside doing a lot of secret agent things, namely trying to calm down this Giant Robot who was being controlled by some shady dudes. The scene I remember is of Scarf Guy trying to reason with the Robot, who was throwing a temper tantrum in some abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere while menacing some screaming, helpless-looking girl. I think she was supposed to be a reporter or something, but I couldn't care less. The minute a show throws out something like that, I immediately tune out. I have zero tolerance for sexism in media, and that on top of everything else confirmed my suspicions. Doctor Who was mediocre, also-ran spy-fi and not worth my time. I didn't give it a second thought or a second look for over a decade.
Once the New Series premiered and started getting a lot of media attention, enough time had passed that it seemed like a good time to give the show another shot. I found the first few episodes starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper to be entertaining, or at least entertaining enough to justify tuning in every so often (funnily enough, I *still* got a huge spy-fi vibe from the show as all the promo materials looked like they came right from a 1960s James Bond movie). Since I had the Internet by this point, I was able to go back and research the whole impressive history of the franchise, and suddenly everything started to make a *lot* more sense. I took the opportunity to cherry-pick from bits of the Classic Series, and was finally able to give Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker a fair shot, and now many of my favourite stories in the series come from their eras (I especially enjoy Pertwee's first season for campy, nostalgic reasons as it's *exactly* what I imagined the show to be. I particularly like “The Ambassadors of Death” in this regard). But, as much as I came to like Baker and Pertwee, what really caught my eye was the intriguing creative tumult that seemed to surround the final era of the Classic Series.
The Sylvester McCoy-Andrew Cartmel era was immediately fascinating to me for several reasons. Firstly, as it ran from 1987-1989, this means it coexisted with a time that was extremely formative for me in terms of media. Learning about the Doctor Who that existed during one of my favourite times for pop culture felt like filling in a gap I didn't know I had before. But I was also interested in how McCoy's interpretation was described as being a more mysterious and special character than The Doctor had been before, and how the production team during this period seemed to be genuinely trying to do something creative and unprecedentedly sophisticated with the show. When I finally got to see the whole era a few years later as part of another Doctor Who retrospective, I was properly impressed: While I can't say Sylvester McCoy is “My” Doctor in the common parlance as I didn't grow up with him and the show holds no particular emotional resonance for me, this era did become unquestionably my favourite version of Doctor Who.
First of all, the theme song and opening credits used during this part of the show are incredible: They're unmistakeably 1980s in the most wonderfully, heartwarmingly cheap way, and that speaks to me on an important level. For me, its one of those things that taps into nostalgia without actually being nostalgic. But more to the point, the show is actually exceptionally well done: Barring McCoy's first appearance, every single serial is an absolute knockout, or at least thoroughly entertaining (make sure you watch the extended feature-length cuts of “Silver Nemesis”, “Battlefield” and "The Curse of Fenric", though). The show just *works* here, and, sadly, I've found that to be very rarely the case.
My biggest problem with Doctor Who has always been its structure. When it began in 1963 as an educational show, the point of having people travelling with The Doctor (in particular, two schoolteachers) was in some sense to translate the show's adventure trappings into something that could be construed as a science or history lesson. But, as soon as the series became an adventure show and the supporting cast was collapsed down onto one or two (often female) Companions, it became uncomfortably easy for Doctor Who to get sloppy with this and drift into the problematic, which it did (and still does) more frequently than Whovians want to admit. That Doctor Who has a reputation for featuring an abundance of scantily clad, screaming helpless women is an overgeneralization, but the blunt reality is that it has that stereotype for a reason, and its because characters like that showed up a bit more often then was entirely comfortable and you can't handwave that away as being a relic of another time: Honestly, I'd take my chances on an average episode of the original Star Trek when it comes to progressive gender roles over an average Doctor Who serial (or episode) any day.
Tom Baker always argued he should have had the show to himself during his tenure, and though Baker was a known egotist in this case he's right. With the notable exception of Romana (who has interesting symbolism of her own), none of Baker's supporting cast were served especially well by the show's format during that period, and the vast majority of my favourite stories featuring his version of the character are in the spin-off comics where he's traveling alone. And a big reason why they work as well as they do is because, even if you strip away the blatant sexism and misogyny in some of Doctor Who's women and get a “good” Companion, a lingering consequence of the show's genre shift in the late-1960s is that the archetypical Doctor/Companion dynamic is inherently patriarchal. No matter what you do, you still have a charismatic leading man action hero leading around a far more ignorant young woman, and no matter how much the show has tried to play with that it's never been able to move beyond the inherent restrictions that setup forces onto it.
Well, apart from this once. For the first and only time since the late 1960s, the Doctor/Companion dynamic actually works this time. Perhaps subconsciously reaching back to its educational show roots, Sylvester McCoy's Doctor is a teacher and guardian to Sophie Aldred's Ace, and this is in truth *her* show, not his. In keeping with its defiant thesis statement (which I'll elabourate on below), this Doctor Who is about Ace's journey from bombed-out, aimless street thug to mature, confidant self-assured young woman who learns how to channel her anarchic, revolutionary fire into the most constructive outlets possible. And, as is true for all good teacher-student relationships, it's about how The Doctor helps her reach that point in her life and what he learns from living and working with her. If Doctor Who must have Companions, this is the kind of characters they need to be.
A big aspect of what allows this to happen is that for the first time in awhile, The Doctor feels like a marginal presence, which is the way in which I think the character is the most successful. I think Doctor Who works best as an anthology show with The Doctor and the TARDIS as the only real constants, and I'm a big fan of characters who prowl around the margins of narratives. It comes out of my affinity for stories in which characters *do* and *talk about* things instead of having things *happen* to them. The Doctor had been a low-key, mysterious presence from the beginning, but once he became an action hero in the late-1960s and early-1970s, that aspect of his character got forgotten for a time.
Bringing it back also allowed Cartmel and his team to cast some doubt upon the by this point well-established nature and background of The Doctor, leading to the infamous “Cartmel Masterplan” that people like to read onto the show during this period. Supposedly, it was going to be some ridiculous story arc about The Doctor really being the reincarnation of an ancient time god instead of a fugitive alien from a planet of time police, because that makes so much more sense. Well, the “Cartmel Masterplan”, or as much of a thing like that can be said to even exist, was really the work of writer Mark Platt, not Andrew Cartmel himself, and actually only played out in the spin-off novels that were written well after the show's cancellation. It had nothing to do with anything anyone other than Platt was thinking about when the show was on the air, and why would it? Think about it: If Cartmel and his team wanted to restore a sense of mystery to The Doctor, wouldn't retconning an equally silly origin story onto him sort of defeat the purpose?
No, the Cartmel-McCoy era is substantially more interesting than that. For one thing, it's a version of Doctor Who that recognises, for the first time, what it actually is. Every time The Doctor regenerates, a Companion leaves or the production team changes the show functionally reboots itself, and this was the first time the show intimately understood that, or at least conveyed it effectively and competently. This is a Doctor Who that understands its own cultural legacy and what it can get away with. And it can get away with a lot because, thanks to the previous creative team's catastrophic screwups, it was also a show that nobody was watching and nobody cared about.
This gets at a bittersweet irony about Soda Pop Art in general and Doctor Who in particular: It tends to work best when its back is up against the wall and is being consciously and deliberately ignored. Cartmel knew he was an inheriting a show that was dead in the water, and used the opportunity to craft the venerable Doctor Who into one of the most brazenly charged anti-authoritarian screeds in television history. When asked what he thought the purpose of Doctor Who was, Cartmel gave the delightfully upfront answer “to bring down the government”. Under Cartmel and his team, we got J.G. Ballard-esque stories set in a futuristic dystopian high-rise complex, critiques of whitewashed historical master narratives set against a war between insect women and cannibalistic flagmen, a condemnation of the horrors of Thatcherite Britain, a requiem for utopian youth cultures of decades past that sold themselves out for a seat at the table of late capitalist hegemony (that doubles as an introspective critique of Doctor Who itself) and twisting, surreal, abstract musings on evolution, Western culture, nonsense literature, individualist anarchy and the human condition.
Strange as it may sound, it can be incredibly liberating to be in the kind of position Cartmel and Doctor Who were in during the late 1980s: The Doctor's increasingly subdued and mysterious role seemed to be an echo of the show's own place on the margins of society at that time, and that galvanized the team with an unparalleled sense of creative freedom to express themselves. I speak from some manner of experience here: When I was serializing my coverage of the first Dirty Pair series on the blog my readership numbers...Well, they didn't so much drop off as they plateaued out, and the comment threads dried up pretty much completely. Let's just say it was not the most popular or well-received thing this project has ever done. But for me, it was like my eyes had been opened to a world I couldn't conceive of before: It came at a time where I really needed to be alone with myself and my thoughts, to be in a kind of intellectual echo chamber. Discovering Dirty Pair and getting the chance to write about it has been of the most inspirational and affirmational experiences of my life, and I maintain the run from The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair to Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia contains some of the best and most transformative work I've ever done.
Doctor Who writes this newfound power back onto itself and pulls what might be its greatest alchemical magick trick: Changing its own mark. And this is the part of the McCoy-Cartmel era that really does tie into that “Masterplan” silliness. Take, for example, the Hand of Omega in “Remembrance of the Daleks”: It's a legendary device that literally constructs star systems, and The Doctor implies that he helped design the prototype in a time before his own people's existence during what sounds suspiciously like the Old Universe. This has been used as evidence that The Doctor is really some version of “The Other”, that mythical time god we talked about earlier. But what if something else is going on? Maybe there is no “Other”. Maybe The Doctor, being a time traveller, went back into his own history, that is, the history of his own show. Not in a diegetic sense (we all know how those crossover stories tend to turn out), but extradiegetically. Metatextually. What if The Doctor is writing revisionist history self-insert fanfiction and the “Other” business is his author insert avatar, a role he crafted (or perhaps reappropriated) for himself? Sylvester McCoy himself is a magician and stage performer, you know. The Doctor knows what modern myths look like, and he has an immense amount of power because he's finally returned to the role of oral storyteller.
That's why this Doctor Who, the Doctor Who of the Long 1980s, is so special. It at once acknowledges its lineage as part of a decades-old unfolding text and is an utterly self-contained work that stands decisively apart from it. When The Doctor and Ace walk off together at the end of “Survival”, the final story of the Classic Series, it may as well be the end of Doctor Who itself as far as I'm concerned. It brings 3-and-23 years of storytelling to a more than satisfying close for me. There's of course a whole other story of Doctor Who that begins here, perhaps many, and there will continue to be as long as people feel it's a story worth retelling. But those will build off of and take inspiration from the story that ends here, not continue it. No amount of serialization and continuity nods will change the fact that it's a new and different universe now.
Speaking of, some of those people are creative figures on Star Trek (curiously, every Doctor Who fan I've ever met either speaks begrudgingly of Star Trek at best or spits fire at it at worst. Every Star Trek fan I've ever met loves Doctor Who unconditionally and considers themselves massive Whovians). This era of Doctor Who in particular has an uncanny relationship with Star Trek: The McCoy-Cartmel era debuted the same night as “Encounter at Farpoint”, and while the Star Trek: The Next Generation team wouldn't have been able to see it on first transmission, that didn't stop them from throwing in quite a number of references to the good Doctor in The Next Generation's first season, and the in-jokes would only increase as the series went on. But more esoterically, there's a genuine conceptual and thematic overlap between the two shows during this period: Both are, in their own ways, digging up a long-abandoned and forgotten utopian science fiction story from decades passed and utterly transforming it through symbolic postmodern magick.
Utopianism still has a place and a role to play and, as we have seen, it can come from crossing any number of timestreams. In Westernism, we take the best of the past and the best of the present to build the future we want together. Indeed, we can only travel through time in Westernism. And it's those rare, beautiful people in Western culture whose good work reassures us that The Next Generation is going to be brilliant.