…On Looking into the Abyss (and Watching it Wave “Hi!” Back at You)

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I last posted almost two months ago, which is devastating to realize. Where has the time gone? Who took my summer away? It feels like yesterday that it was May, and it was light outside in the evenings, and I still saw my friends regularly.

It hasn’t been a very nice summer. I had something like five hospitalizations (I’m losing track of exact dates at this point). I spent my birthday in hospital – and more than a week afterward, too. I used up a godawful amount of time at home pumping IV drugs into my arm on a schedule, or dealing with the tubing from a wound vac that, for the first two weeks, wouldn’t stop revving like a locomotive engine all day and night. I saw doctors and more doctors and then a few more doctors. I took a ton of antibiotics. I willingly became an amputee. I thought I was fixing problems, and they’ve only kept re-emerging in new and fun and fascinating ways.

Fuck you, MRSA. Fuck you hard.

Then, about six weeks ago, I found myself in the emergency room with a new and exciting and totally unrelated issue that led to unexpected intestinal surgery. And as much as I’d had a pretty rubbish summer up to that point, nothing prepared me to be knocked so completely flat on my back. I spent two weeks on a tube not eating or drinking anything, almost three weeks on major, addictive painkillers, and it was only about a week ago that my brain finally started to wake up and say, “Yes, I think we can begin to function normally again.”

Focus has been hard without a fully-functioning brain; reaction times have been poor, and the ability to multi-task? Basically non-existent. Don’t even talk to me about driving, something I usually love. I had to make the decision to give up three of my four classes for the semester, and all of my extra-curricular projects are on hold, too. I haven’t even been able to concentrate on reading a novel. So what has that left me with? Well, I’ve been watching nice, uncomplicated television (hello, Great British Bake-Off), sleeping, pumping more IV antibiotics into my arm (hooray!), sleeping, sitting on the porch, sleeping, eating easy-to-digest food, and – oh yes – sleeping. Do you know one of my least-favorite activities? Sleeping. C’mon, already. I’ll be dead soon enough.

Fuck you, entire year. What did you do with my life?

Something that always pisses me off are those little memes you see on social media where people willingly victimize themselves, usually under the guise of humor. Sometimes they even say it outright. “Why do I have to be an adult?” or, worse, the Buffy-style verbing of “I just don’t want to adult today.” Oh, come off it. In the most literal sense of the phrase: grow up. We all become adults – hopefully – and part of the badge of honor of being a grown-up is being able to deal with life and roll with the punches. For some of us, it’s not getting to sleep long enough, having obnoxious coworkers, and being unable to afford tickets to the Black-Eyed Peas. For some of us, it’s having two wound vacs, six weeks of IV meds, and a rotating set of doctor’s clinics that would make Kafka blush. And for some of us, it’s cancer, or lupus, or a car accident that causes complete lifestyle apple-cart turnover. All of these things are, to one degree or another, completely legitimate. I can guarantee you, though, that the people with cancer aren’t posting memes about “how hard it is to adult.” If anything, they’re posting about how nice it is to still be waking up in the morning.

My dad tells me that I must be doing better because I’ve regained the ability to be grouchy and bad-tempered. I’m recognizably myself again, apparently. (He’s probably right – I was extremely quiet and agreeable for a long time, there, chiefly through exhaustion. Very disturbing.) What he is perhaps missing is that my grumpy exterior is largely diversionary. I crab off (<—new term!) about little things to avoid being really frustrated by the big things outside of my control – and perhaps, as whiny as I think they are, that’s the point of those stupid little memes, too. (See how self-reflexive this is getting?) So now that I’ve had my own little whine – sorry, just have to get this in here: fuck you, everything else I’ve forgotten to curse up to this point – what am I going to bloody well do about it?

I feel like I keep looking into Nietzsche’s famous abyss, and it keeps cheerfully, even ebulliently, waving back. “Hey buddy!” it says, clad in a sparkling, sequin-covered suit, like someone out of Cabaret. “Come play with me! We will have such fun! We don’t need anyone else – ever! – and I can think of so many games for us to enjoy.” It wheedles, and it charms, and it tries to distract me with shiny, pretty things.

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Here’s a pretty thing, too – not a temptation from the dark side but a gift from a friend. As most people reading this blog would, I hope, recognize, it’s a “blue crystal” from “Metebelis III.” It’s charming, surprisingly lightweight, and I can already hear my mother bemoaning the lost shelf space. Perhaps more pertinently, it’s clearly meant to be a message: time to stop avoiding my life and get back to it. I guess that means I’m supposed to start blogging again.

The truth is, though, that I don’t feel much like blogging. I don’t think I’ve got much to say about the third Doctor and his James Bond-ian adventures right now; I couldn’t feel less Bond-ian if I tried. When did the third Doctor ever express anxiety, confusion or lack of confidence?

That’s right: he doesn’t. In fact, it’s a deliberate choice on Jon Pertwee’s part to play the role as upright and indomitable as he possibly can. Ultimately, that’s what makes his regeneration in “Planet of the Spiders” so affecting; it’s hard to watch this most Boy’s Own of heroes collapse to the ground, let alone die. Up to that point, though, Pertwee spends all of his time consciously Not Showing Weakness, even in publicity photographs. Hartnell’s Doctor looked like he was going to give up the ghost about every fourth episode. Troughton’s Doctor was the first (and for a long time, the only) one to express fear at the sight of the Daleks. Pertwee’s Doctor…well, this is a typical Pertwee reaction:

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…Which looks, frankly, like my dad clowning around at Halloween. Or there’s this:

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…Which implies that Mr. Pertwee didn’t see the bride beforehand.

Seriously, the man does not do fear. He’s too busy being amazing (at least, I think that’s what that’s supposed to translate as). He probably doesn’t even know what the abyss looks like – well, except for that one time he faced down a gymnast in a kabuki mask, obviously.

How do I keep writing? How do I keep going? Well, it’s really pretty simple: I don’t know. And as they say, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there (c.f. George Harrison, Lewis Carroll, and the Buddha, all of whom are pretty good guys to pay attention to). And whether I like it or not, the reality of the situation is that I have no clue where I’m going at the moment, and that feels anxious and uncertain. My family have gathered around me, though, and I’m out of immediate danger. It’s just more waiting and being careful – very, very careful. I have to bide my time, keep putting one wheel in front of another, and regain my ascendancy, bit by bit, day by day. I have to at least pretend to have the confidence to move forward.

Not all spiders sit on the back, you know.

So I guess it’s back to blogging. I’m not sure what I’ll have to say, or whether it’s worth saying, but we’ll see if I can’t work myself back into the groove. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be better than ever before. Maybe it will be deeply philosophical and revelatory.

Wait. Two months ago, I left off on “The Curse of Peladon.”

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…”The Curse of Peladon,” everybody.

Shit.

…On Changing Your Past

Serial KKK: Day of the Daleks

Finally, after two full seasons of much-loved favorites and equally memorable failures, we reach a point where I have to admit a certain unfamiliarity: the start of season nine, and “Day of the Daleks.” There’s no good reason for it, really; “Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest available commercial VHS releases, so I would have had every opportunity to either buy or borrow it from the very start of my fandom. I didn’t. Instead, “The Daemons” was my very first VHS purchase – yes, really, I didn’t know what I was getting into – and I actually can’t dredge up the memory of the first (and probably only) time I saw “Day” on VHS.

d03-3k-006“Day of the Daleks” is, chronologically, the first Pertwee serial to fall under my personal category of Subjective Forgettables. There’s quite a few of them in the 1970s. Unlike, say, “Colony in Space,” they’re not boring or even especially bad; it’s just that after you watch them – or at least after I watch them – they fade almost instantly from memory. “Planet of Evil” is like that, and I’m sure I’ve seen it half a dozen times or more. So is “The Invasion of Time”; so is “Frontier in Space.” I don’t have strong feelings toward any of them at all. In the case of “Day of the Daleks,” though, that feels particularly strange; after all, I’m sure it was chosen for early VHS release because it’s Jon Pertwee and it’s Daleks and it’s UNIT and holy crap it’s not six episodes we all might actually stay awake. I should remember this thing. It should be a towering monster of an event.

It’s not.

The truth is I know this serial far more for its images than anything that actually takes place in moving footage (with one exception: see below). In the days of the nascent internet, I waited for half an hour at a time over a 4800kbps connection to download…oh, I don’t know…one publicity photograph relating to my new favorite televisual obsession. Although I didn’t know it at the time, many of those were from “Day of the Daleks.” That’s the version of the third Doctor I always see in my mind’s eye: Pertwee plastered against a wall in hiding; Pertwee with his hands held up in mock fear and surprise; Pertwee lunging at a snail’s pace on a motor-trike. There’s even this one, fairly fuzzy portrait of Pertwee with a fist on one hip, as if to say, “Yes, old chap, I am debonair, aren’t I?” All of these were eagerly devoured by my 11-year-old fan brain. The Gold Dalek, too, featured heavily in those early image collections. And that one famous shot of Sergeant Benton? The one with the walkie-talkie? Yup. “Day of the Daleks.”

d03-3k-056Listening to the fans on the DVD extras, maybe this is one serial that just inspires everyone to dream of what it could be rather than what it really is. It’s a strangely atypical Pertwee tale – even a strangely atypical Doctor Who – filled with odd little touches that seem strangely out of sync with each other: the grinding Dalek voices; the repetition of the cliffhanger sting music; the completely amazing ability of Aubrey Woods to out-flamboyant Jon Pertwee in nothing more than metalliic makeup and a black jumpsuit. (Seriously, he makes Pertwee look like a method actor. He’s incredible. I adore him. And yes, him I remember, long after it’s over!) Forget “The Caves of Androzani”; director Paul Bernard seems to believe he invented the crossfade right here, in 1971. None of it really gels together, but none of it’s really broken, either. It’s just really, really weird – and I, at least, find myself contemplating how I might do it differently. As, indeed, did the makers of the special DVD edition – which, aside from the silly CGI buildings, I largely enjoy. Proper Dalek voices make a world of difference.

d03-3k-010Yet this brings up a topic which is curiously reflective of the story’s content. What gives us leave to change history? Is there a line we shouldn’t cross? It’s incredibly appropriate that fans have poured time and money and careful attention into altering their past when the subject of that time and money and careful attention is…well…a serial about how you shouldn’t alter your past. Admittedly, the stakes aren’t particularly high here – it’s a television show, after all – but the basic point stands. It doesn’t matter how much I want this to be an incredible adventure where Jon Pertwee jumps into a heated battle against an army of Daleks and kung-fus them to the ground before sailing off on his jet-powered super-bike (which is pretty much what the posed photographs suggest): this isn’t that serial, and no amount of proper Dalek voices will ever make it so. The proper Dalek voices just bring it that little bit closer to perfection, that little more concretely representative of the serial we all see in our heads. And that’s nice, I guess – but it’s also fairly pointless. If anything, it almost makes the remaining flaws even more apparent.

It’s also a little bit pointless to try and dissect what has created this culture of “fixing” our past. Because that’s where we are now: a society where we want to relive the moments we enjoyed and perfect the ones we didn’t. In part, I think, an increasing embrace of nostalgia is responsible, along with the availability of technology to enact our fantasies quickly and cheaply. We can fanedit imperfect movies and run Instagram filters over awkward photos. We can write fan fiction that gives a better, happier ever after fate to our favorite characters, and we can edit or delete our Facebook posts and and tweets so that we present ourselves as cool and as sleek as we always see ourselves in our heads. At one level, that’s pretty neat. At another, though, it’s more than a little frightening; it’s not realistic, and it’s certainly not forward-looking. In essence, it’s a way to dine on some very, very pretty ashes – and to do it publicly, too, so that everyone can feel comforted that their little yawping voice is being “heard” out there among the massive, churning crowd. (Look: I’m doing it right now, myself!)

What’s the point? Have we all become so delicate now that we can’t face who we are and have to fall back on who we’d like to have been?

d03-3k-126Before Steven Moffat, Doctor Who almost never deal with the ramifications of time travel or time paradoxes. I’m fine with that. I don’t really enjoy stories like that very much, and it’s all remarkably insular anyway, which to me seems to defeat the point of Doctor Who as an almost relentlessly outward-looking program. If anything, the criticism could be levied that the Doctor has never spent enough time dwelling on his actions, as he’s usually too busy running on to get to his next adventure. What the Time War has forced us to examine as an audience is that he always leaves a tremendous amount of chaos and death in his wake.

So is the point of this backward-dwelling culture to try and shape ourselves into something better? To be self-aware to the point where we can see what we did wrong, or poorly, or incompletely, and learn from our mistakes? That would be an idealistic view, anyway. I wonder how many people would actually be able to claim that’s how it works out.

I’ve spent a lot of the past year in pretty intense self-reflection, and I’m at a point where I’m not sure it’s actually helping. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in your thoughts – in what you could have done differently, or how other people could have treated you better – that you can get bogged down with the weight of it all. Some days I think it’d be better just to live like a dog does, bouncing up every morning without the impact of the previous day’s events, ready to go for a walk with the same enthusiasm and sense of newness as every other morning. Then, there are other days where I think this is just what it means to be human, with the realization that (nearly) every person on the planet goes through some version of this metaphysical self-awareness. And then there are the other days where I just want to give over to anger and bitterness and depression.

d03-3k-019The reality is that you’ve probably got to have a combination of all of these things: there’s always a little bit of moving back, a little bit of moving forward, and some amount of stillness, too. The difference between the past and the future, though, is that you really can’t change what’s already happened – and the point of all these time paradox stories is that you probably wouldn’t want to anyway. With the future, though, there is always – as the Doctor himself points out – a choice. And whether or not you can use your past to inform your future, you’ve still got to meet it. You’ve still got to make those choices, eventually, for better or worse.

Where does that leave me? I’m not sure. I’ve made some choices lately that I can’t take back. They’re not bad – I don’t necessarily regret them – but they certainly affect my present and my future. I find myself waking up in the morning and saying, “Well, that really happened. I really did that.” And then, somehow, I have to keep moving. As I write this, it’s the first day of a brand new university semester – and in a few hours, I’ll be back at “work” for the first time in nine months. I’ll be driving to a new place, teaching in a new location, trying to figure out parking and where I can get a cup of coffee and whether or not my student rosters are correct. It’s not bad, but it’s daunting. It’d be so easy to just stay home, immobile, caught in wondering what I did to get here and why it isn’t better, or different – and that wouldn’t get me anywhere, really.

It’s time, I think, to stop dwelling on what happened. Time to put away the ashes. Time to dial down the reflection – well, just a hair, at least.

It’s time to see what happens next.

…And you, gentle reader? Has there ever been a time when you wish you could have changed your past? Would it really have been a good idea?

…On the Patriarchy (Part One)

Serial JJJ: The Dæmons

I knew how this blog post was going to start. Really, I did. For a couple of weeks, I had it in my head that I would start with something ominous and cranky (as is my wont) along the lines of, “Let me tell you how much I hate ‘The Dæmons.'”

Then I wound up in hospital the day before my birthday.

And I spent my birthday in hospital. And I was still in hospital almost two weeks later. After a while, I began to reassess just what it is that I actually hate.

Okay, so I probably don’t hate “The Dæmons” after all, but what is it about the serial that I dislike so intensely?

d03-3j-213First off, there’s a really basic issue at work, I think, which is completely outside the realm of the original broadcast: I do not belong to this serial’s target audience. I grew up with all sorts of old science-fiction films, British Invasion music, mystery novels, and even classic cartoons, all of which (to one degree or another) give me a sort of cultural relationship with a lot of early Doctor Who. When I first saw “The Mind Robber,” for instance, I recognized almost all of the literature and mythology references; when I saw “Spearhead from Space,” I saw allusions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other sci-fi paranoia of the 1950s. “The Dæmons,” however, left me totally cold. I didn’t grow up on Hammer Horror films – I’ve only seen a handful since – and I have never had any interest in outre-black-magic-in-the-local-village type stories. It’s all mumbo-jumbo to me. I’m the person who thinks Quatermass and the Pit absolutely dive-bombs, never to recover, once they start in on that nonsense about the Devil and iron. There’s the first problem, then: there are long, long, looooong portions of the serial that I just find…well, really boring. (I’m still not entirely sure, at 32, that I understand what a Morris dancer is supposed to be doing or why.)

In addition, I was raised by secular parents in a totally secular environment: I don’t believe in any religion, and I’m not looking to subscribe. I have no interest in following any entity or set of ritualistic practices; my mortal fear is my own, and I’m largely quite private about it. I also have a pretty low tolerance for mysticism. I believe pretty firmly that there are things we don’t understand, that the search for answers is part of the basic human experience, and that we are even connected in ways beyond our comprehension, but I don’t believe in flights of whimsy about dreams or angels or healing powers or the unending fight between the Light and the Dark. Those make very good fairy stories, and I like fairy stories. I think stories are immensely powerful because of the way they allow us to contextualize and mythologize our emotions, experiences, and desires – our lives, in fact. But they’re symbolic. They may be true, but they aren’t real.

d03-3j-c163That’s about the point where I start to suck in air through my teeth during “The Dæmons.” Although the Doctor repeats time and time again that all of the mystical handwaving he’s confronted with has its basis in pure science (“Dæmons from the planet Dæmos!”), the serial spends an achingly long time trying to coddle us along with almost-magic and “ooh spooky” things to keep us at the edge of our seats (oh, but it’s science, of course). There are loads of things that go completely unexplained, not least of which is this: why on Earth does the Master have to go to the trouble of an entire black magic ceremony to summon Azal? Multiple times? With recitations and a cavern and a bunch of nameless acolytes? What’s the point? Why does the Master care? I mean, seriously. This is a guy who just walked up and knocked on Axos’ door (not that that worked out particularly well). Are you really going to tell me he woke up one morning and said, “I’ve got this great idea. I’ll awaken a crazy god-alien-being…but wait, first I’ve got to go buy a really awesome robe”?

This is tripeEye-rolling, 1970s, pseudo-mystical garbage. And from my point of view, it’s not even entertaining – it’s just dumb.

All of that, though, doesn’t really get me to a point of hatred (or near-hatred, or…you know what I mean). What really infuriates me about the serial is that Barry Letts – in many ways, a highly progressive thinker and “cruise director” for the program – allows the proponents of “magic” over “science” to be the only two featured women in the cast. And really, that’s about the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their portrayal. These women are as thick as bricks. They’re the worst sort of stereotypes to come out of the dawn of feminism, the last desperate grasp of traditional gender role proponents to marginalize women with “friendly” but destructive portrayals. Sadly, they’re characterizations that are very easy traps to fall into, even unintentionally, because they help the mechanics of the plot along – but that doesn’t stop them being lazy or outdated, even in 1972.

I think I’ve always felt this way, even as a kid. I just hadn’t put the time in to really consider it until about a year or so ago. As I get older, I find myself more and more concerned with the portrayal of women in social contexts. (Actually, I’m concerned about other groups, too – including white men, actually – but some of what we do to women is especially subtle and, well, pervasive.) What I mean by that is the roles women are asked to play – in stories, in drama, in life situations – usually as a secondary companion to a central male figure. Now, despite what you may assume, I’m a lot less concerned about the “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype than some, largely it’s become identified in our popular culture as such an obvious problem. What bothers me more are the stereotypes we seem prepared to enjoy. I know women who buy into these wholesale. I know gay men who practically worship them. And I sit back and think to myself, “Doesn’t anybody see how harmful this is?”

d03-3j-004I really, really, really, really can’t stand Jo Grant. She’s an idiot. She’s a cuddly, smiley, feel-good, wouldn’t-she-be-a-nice-little-girl-to-know cretin. And that’s the problem. I know so many people who adore Jo – some of them, I think, because they were children themselves when they watched her on TV – but all I’m left with is the sense that I’m watching a twenty-year-old woman act like a ten-year-old child. She’s a child-woman, a surrogate for the audience, and at a certain level that’s necessary for Doctor Who; the creepy part, though, is that earlier in the series’ history, there was a distinct definition between child/teen characters and actual grown women. Now, with Jo, the roles have merged – uncomfortably, although I readily admit young women such as these do exist. These are the kinds of girls (and occasionally, boys) who worry me constantly in my classes. They sit in the back, they raise their hand gingerly, they’re super-apologetic about bloody everything and I keep wanting to shake them by the shoulders and go, “Grow up! You’re not going to be able to deal with life!”

It’s not their fault, of course. These are often girls who come from families (or romantic relationships, or both) where their opinions have been shot down, their confidence shattered, their sense of identity so sublimated it barely exists. They are constantly looking for other people to tell them they’re okay, which is, frankly, a pretty dangerous situation to live in. (I have a nurse like this right now. She comes in, and when a sentence doesn’t start with, “I’m sorry,” it usually goes along the lines of, “Is this okay?” I know what she’s doing – she’s trying to be kind and compassionate. But it leaves me with a sense that she actually has very little clue how to do her job, and that I know more than she does. As a patient, that’s a terribly insecure feeling.)
d03-3j-c903…And that’s why Jo Grant is such a problem. Proponents of Jo Grantism (my God, I’ve invented a term) would probably say to me, “But as long as you’re kind to people, things will work out.” Yeah. In stories. In reality, people who trust blindly and put themselves at the mercy of others are the ones who, more often than not, get used as doormats – or, more bluntly, get bludgeoned to a pulp. Think of a dog at a shelter; people who love dogs will take a shelter dog home and give it the life it deserves. But how did that dog get there in the first place? By being endlessly, blindly nice, and having other, less-nice people abuse it. I don’t like to see that kind of naivete/innocence/blind trust in life, let alone promoted through a role model on television; it leaves me with a sort of queasy feeling, and that’s never more true than in “The Dæmons,” because Jo’s status is actively reinforced by the Doctor’s behavior throughout the serial. I won’t go so far as to say it’s abuse – the Doctor is, and in my opinion should be, a cranky guy at the best of times – but what makes it unpleasant is just how eagerly Jo takes his harshness, again and again and again. The Doctor is allowed the opportunity to criticize the Brigadier’s actions, but the moment Jo does the same – in fact, repeating his statement – he rounds on her like a parent whose child just said something rude. He openly tells her in a jovial but condescending manner that he’s “never goiong to make her into a scientist,” which she accepts as if perfectly content with her own stupidity – and she must be, because later she admits, coyly, that she also failed Latin. My personal favorite is that in the opening moments of the story, the Doctor is able to fool her with a simple remote control device – and she’s delighted! Good grief, Jo. It’s the same futuristic technology you can go down to the shop and buy in a toy helicopter!

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I’ve warmed slightly to Jo in the past few years just because of the actress, Katy Manning, herself. In her own way, she’s as mad as Tom Baker (at least, going by the interviews), but I’m basically left with the impression that she simply doesn’t care what you think of her, and she’s going to do what she wants – which I respect, tremendously. There’s actually a really nice contrast between her and Baker-era companion Louise Jameson on one of the DVD featurettes. Jameson is the ultimate in serious, thoughtful feminist speakers; she always has something very considered and progressive to say. Manning, on the other hand, will say anything, usually with a rather dirty chuckle. You can tell they both make each other slightly uncomfortable, but what I think is incredible is how they represent two very different lines of feminine maturity. I kind of want both of these people as my aunts. I want to take tea with them both. Regularly.
d03-3j-c719Pleasingly, neither Manning nor Jameson has developed into Jo Grant’s horrific future self: that’s right, it’s the even-less-appealing middle- or old-aged version of the child-woman, the daffy spinster! And no character in all of Doctor Who better represents this obnoxious trope than our other major female player in this serial, one Miss Hawthorne. Everyone in fandom adores Miss Hawthorne except me. (Gay men seem to especially relate to her, for reasons I don’t really understand.) She’s exactly the same sort of character that you often see in film or TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: doddery and flighty, predisposed to tea, eschewing violence but prepared to bean somebody over the head with a handbag. It’s a comedy character, in essence – a feminine version of The Fool. My problem with it is that when you’ve already got a segment of the population marginalized as potentially less intelligent, or less capable, than the dominant group, what good is it to present a character who uses the same negative traits as an (occasional) advantage? Maybe some readers or viewers see that as cunning or funny or attractive. I don’t. It just makes me vaguely embarrassed.

The serial takes pains to depict Miss Hawthorne as kindly but basically useless. She faffs around going on about phases of the moon and her cat Greymalkin, and raising up her arms into the sky to ward off evil, but she never actually does anything. She’s supremely ineffective. Her champion is Benton, for crying out loud. And when she finally meets the Doctor, he first A) puts her down and B) treats her like a dopey child. Now who does that sound like? Maybe Miss Hawthorne falied Latin, too. Probably, that’s why she can’t get a man. (Okay, now I’m just snarking.)

d03-3j-c950What some might see as redemptive about these characters is that, ultimately, they save the Doctor and save the day. What bothers me is that I’m not sure the Doctor does anything to deserve to be saved, and here – prepare yourself – is where I really feel like the patriarchy thrusts itself into the narrative. Of course Miss Hawthorne is going to throw herself into danger to save the Doctor from being shot. Of course Jo is going to sacrifice herself so that a “good man” can live. Here I’m really not even talking about women and men: I’m disturbed by the idea that weaker characters will simply give themselves up for the dominant protagonist because of course they will, right? That’s not characterization; that’s fulfilling a function, and as long as we allow any group of people to have role models who act as mere functions, we are cheating them out of their potential. I understand that in a show called Doctor Who, not everyone can be the Doctor. But in a serial where all of the regular cast get something to do – seriously, Yates and Benton never get better moments than they get here – it’s more than disappointing that any little girls watching are basically told, “You, as an individual, are worth very little.”

And that’s why I hate “The Dæmons.”  

…On the Persona of Authority

Serial HHH: Colony in Space

I cannot think of a single thing to say about “Colony in Space.” Nothing happens in it. It is so damn boring.

d03-3h-001In fact, I am so much more familiar with the serial’s Target novelization than its actual TV presentation that in my original draft of this post, I kept calling it “The Doomsday Weapon” – the (far more dynamic) title of the book. And when I think of the actual story, what I think of are the little details Hulke added to that novel, such as the glimpses of an over-populated Earth with moving pavements, the scene between the Time Lord filing clerks, and the far superior depiction of the Guardian of the Primitives (not a wizened puppet figure but a tiny, featureless entity bathed in flame). A new introduction for Jo aside, It’s all the same plot, but it’s endlessly more evocative than what we got on screen. The televised version lumbers around for six episodes, expecting you to find terror in projected images of iguanas. I’d like to believe that to be another example of “reach exceeding grasp,” but really, I’m not sure what anyone’s even reaching for.

There’s one exception, though. The story picks up – well, at least as much as it can ever be said to “pick up” – with the introduction of the Master in episode four. By this point, you would think I’d be experiencing Master fatigue, but the reverse is actually true. I’m relieved to see the Master after a three-episode absence because at least I know Roger Delgado’s going to deliver the goods. It’s a nice little non-surprise/surprise, too: clever viewers would have perked up, three episodes earlier, to hear the Master name-checked by the Time Lords, but enough time would have gone by that a majority might have forgotten he was even involved. When he finally shows up in a star-turn reveal, swathed in adjudicator’s robes, you actually feel a little shiver of anticipation. Finally, something might happen. (It’s a forlorn hope, but at least the confrontations get more interesting.)

d03-3j-025What is, perhaps, peculiar about the Master’s appearance in this serial is that he’s shifted into an entirely new sphere of influence: he’s taken on the role of an authority figure. Gone are the telephone repair men and mysterious corporate entities. In his remaining appearances during the Pertwee era (we’re already at the mid-way point!), the Master will take on the pre-existing roles of a village vicar, a naval admiral, the head of a team of scientists and a police commissioner – implacable authorities all, at least within their own contexts. It can be presumed that if he didn’t just forge his documentation, the Master killed all the people he’s managed to replace (which might be the case with Prof. Emil Keller, too – we don’t know). His plans are getting more grandiose and he’s willing to go to greater lengths to achieve them, but he’s also routinely using his own face now instead of rubber masks; incredulously, simple costume changes are enough to hide him from the public eye. The Doctor and UNIT, meanwhile, look increasingly like meandering fox hounds who can’t quite pick up the scent. Do they never distribute photographs of this man to law enforcement agencies?

d03-3h-c584It’s interesting to consider that in each of the Master’s five appearances in season eight, he tries a subtly different approach. Perhaps he’s slowly eliminating possibilities. In “Terror of the Autons” he draws attention through fairly overt attacks on both the British public and the Doctor; in “The Mind of Evil” he uses an alien creature to catalyze political unrest; in “The Claws of Axos” he attempts to flip a botched collaboration with Axos to his own ends; in “The Dæmons” (spoilers!) he’s going to attempt to directly manipulate an entire community; and here…well, here he just takes advantage of a conflict already in progress. You’d think he’d try the last one a little more often; after all, it’s easier to play people off of each other than spend your time actually bossing them around. There’s something about the Master’s psychology that requires him to receive admiration from his prey, which is, of course, taken to brutal extremes in an episode like “Last of the Time Lords.” He and the Doctor both have egos that thrive upon having – to put it simply – fans. The only difference is that the Doctor’s fans tend to be a little bit more willing.

d03-3h-c822I’m particularly intrigued by the idea that both the Master and the Doctor take their titles from the education system, because from my brief time in that arena, I can tell you that educators are the fakiest fake fakers that the world has ever seen. What do I mean by that? They are almost entirely self-constructed authorities, balancing on the same tenuous “because I said so” logic of a parent but without the same fiscal or social responsibilities. This is not to say that teachers and professors are not deserving of respect – far from it. It’s actually more true to suggest that they are in an awkward position because of how little respect our Western culture affords the role they play in society. “Those who can’t do, teach.” Well, you try getting up there for a while.

Teaching is complex because it isn’t a single-strand profession. (And yes, for the purposes of discussion, we’ll leave out the other, non-teaching responsibilities of most educators and academics. Trust me, we’ve got enough to go on.) First of all, of course, you have to be an intellect, an expert (or at least, a highly advanced and well-read enthusiast) in your given area. Otherwise, you’re simply not going to have the information you need to dispense to others. Then, you have to be a sort of inventor or engineer, crafting assignments, lectures or activities that will appropriately convey this information to your audience within the time and format restrictions you have been assigned. If you’re any good at what you do, you have to be something akin to a preacher, lawyer or stand-up comedian (or all three) to keep the attention of your students. And finally – and I would say, least importantly, although it’s the aspect most of the public and even some educators seem to focus on with an absolute death grip – you have to be a disciplinarian, a judge who determines the boundaries of your individual court and upholds the law of the university at large.

This is exhausting stuff, yo.

To get through this job with anything even approaching success, you have to have an absolutely staggering amount of internal drive, whether that takes the form of confidence, ambition, devotion, or flat-out anxiety. I count myself a very confident – sometimes overly confident – individual, but sometimes, the job can just floor you. That’s not a unique experience. Everybody does what they have to: they “fake it until they make it,” a common but rather misleading phrase. The faking part (well, at least hopefully) isn’t about the expertise, the communication ability, or even the problem-solving skills. It’s about the necessary tooling of a persona that will wrap all of these disparate roles up and, hopefully, feed off some little tiny part of your own personality that is both natural and true. In my case, my unfulfilled stage ambitions come through: I get up and tell jokes, make grand hand gestures, and as I always say, “juggle oranges.” I basically turn into P.T. Barnum, and some days that works really easy, and some days, let me tell you, it requires a lot of coffee. Other colleagues of mine have their own tried and tested personas that really work well for them: the wise sage, the flustered but endearing aunt, the distant but brilliant librarian, the warm and motherly mentor, the demanding army sergeant. They all have some similarities but they are all significantly different, and with few exceptions, they are highly distilled versions of the real individuals, with the weight shifted to certain characteristics over others. We’re all playing at being the Wizard of Oz, and at some level, we’re all humbugs.

d03-3h-072Having this experience – playing the role that I do – gives me a new insight into the world of authority. Borne of two parents who spent their adolescence in the late 1960s, I was naturally brought up to be resistant to, or at very least suspicious of, organized authority. I don’t trust pronouncements or rules without explanations provided, and I don’t respect uniforms for the sheer sake of uniforms. I’ve seen doctors make terrible assumptions, and I’ve had nurses push me to agree to things not because they represent the best or safest solutions, but because they would allow them to do less work. Although I respect their power (and it has, sadly, been proven to me to be open to corruption), I have no particular fear or awe of the police, and at heart, I’m about as virulently anti-military as they come. In fact, I find it absolutely sickening that in the United States, we have elevated the armed forces – not the actual people who work in dangerous, constant-stress environments and come home home irrevocably changed, but the jingoistic ideologies of the institutions – to a level of near-worship. (Every time I go to the movies I see some new campaign to enlist teenagers to go be “heroes” for our time-honored, lily-white, better-than-everyone-else-under-the-goddamn-sun nation, and every time, I want to throw something at the screen.) The truth is, though, that these are all constructed authorities; they all exist because we as a society make a joint agreement to treat these positions with respect and buy into their personas. And I’m one of them now. The only real difference is that there aren’t nearly as many TV series about educators, or ads for them at bus stops, or educator discounts on vacation cruises. The status and power we wield is markedly less than most other “uniformed” professions, although our actual influence on a sheer number of individual lives is probably even greater. That’s really the only thing that separates us from the President of the United States. Er…you know what I mean.

Of course, with power – with any power – comes responsibility, Spider-Man. And I think one of the single most difficult things to balance as you begin in one of these positions of authority is the implementation of that power. When do you follow the rules to the letter, no matter the severity, and when do you allow yourself to be tempered by human compassion? When do you give a little, and when do you pull back? In what ways and at what stage do you establish your seniority, and when is it beneficial to come down to the level of your students? After six years, I’m still figuring this out. Every peer I know is still figuring this out. I read an article that suggests it takes educators a full decade to really get their persona under their belt, and I believe it. There are some aspects to how I teach that I think are very successful, which I cottoned on to from a very early point. There are others that I’m completely re-assessing even now, as I prepare to teach again after a half-year hiatus. And the semester will come in August, and I’ll get through it, and in December, I’ll see more things I need to tweak. It won’t stop – actually, it won’t ever really stop. But it will certainly be a while yet before the process even slows down.

d14-12s-320Back to the Master. I’ve written before on how much I admire the Doctor’s ability to just pick himself up and go, to do what he has to do no matter what anyone else thinks. It’s a very idealized portrait of the self-constructed individual: he can be exactly who he wants to be without many, if any, ramifications. The new series of Doctor Who has played with that idea a little more deliberately, especially in the relationship between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor – himself a very distinct throwback to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in many ways – and Jenna Coleman’s Clara. And that, I think, is important, because it both challenges the Doctor’s presumed authority and, ultimately, reinforces his morality. (In plain English: it forces him to reflect, something he only does very rarely in the original series, and usually at the brink of death.) With the introduction of a new Master who looks set to be a recurring threat, I’m curious to see if there is a similarly subtle examination of her authority, too. Right now, she’s mostly been as Bonkers McGee as the John Simm incarnation, but there are some hints that she might have more layers to explore – such as her regeneration(?) into a female body, which is a pretty literal representation of a new persona if ever I saw one. She’s also suggested to be somewhat more devious, playing the long game with Clara and even establishing herself briefly as the artificial intelligence MISI. What happens next remains to be seen, but I wonder if we aren’t in for a new era of the Master of disguises – perhaps not physical ones, but at the identity level, just as it was back in the early ’70s. The Master as Madonna, then: constant re-invention, desperate to stay in the limelight and keep a grip on what power she’s managed to scrabble together.

And as for “Colony in Space”? Well, it’s interesting you should ask. It wasn’t the Roger Delgado Master’s usual modus operandi, but it looks as if one of Missy’s favorite new games is to simply sit back and pit people against each other. Perhaps the Master’s time as an adjudicator gave her a taste for the puppet master that she’s never quite lost…

So what about you? How, in your life, do you have to construct authority? Is our entire civilization simply held together by the symbols of authority we agree to interpret in certain ways?

…On the Reach Exceeding the Grasp

Serial GGG: The Claws of Axos

d03-3g-044 We cross the midway point of season eight with “The Claws of Axos,” and it’s interesting that it actually splits neatly into two halves. The first two episodes, with the Doctor arguing relentlessly with dull scientists and boorish civil servants, feel like the very last gasp of the season seven format; aside from the infamous Pigbin Josh sequences, it all has a pretty good internal consistency, a nice pace, and at least a light take on a real political issue: global food shortage. The “England for England’s sake” attitude from the previous serial rears its head again, this time as a mixture of a comedy and threat, and the Brigadier and Yates get to be their most competent for the entire year. The Doctor gets his moral indignation, Jo isn’t too annoying, the Axons are pleasingly strange – it all works. It all works well. And then there’s the second half, which is a combination of a monster runaround and the Doctor shaking his fist at the Time Lords in the sky. It’s strangely predictive of the rest of the Pertwee era (especially the serials featuring the Master), and…it’s not bad. The four-episode structure is definitely a benefit; you don’t really want to imagine this one at six or seven.

What’s surprising is how different it all looks from what came before. “Terror of the Autons” had patches of bright, blazing hues, but “Axos” – with the shift between the colder, sterile Nuton Power Complex and the living organism Axos – feels almost designer-trendy. Axos is doused in reds, oranges, yellows, golds, and something streaky and phlegmatic that would make David Cronenberg proud. After a year and a half, Doctor Who is finally well and truly “in color.”

d03-3g-133It’s also trying to do something it’s never really done before: depict a living alien organism that isn’t (at least entirely) humanoid. Axos is impressive, if for no other reason, because it’s such an assault on the senses. It’s part trippy nightclub light show, part bouncy castle, part haunted house; there are long crustacean claws coming out of the walls and eyes watching you from the ground. We can laugh all we want at the gold Axon bodysuits, but they’re completely of a piece with their surroundings, and I challenge anyone with even a basic suspension of disbelief not to “buy into” them pretty quickly. You stop thinking about the neckline and the ping-pong ball eyes with alarming speed. And then there’s the “monster” versions…

d03-3g-037 (1)Some real thought went into these monsters. Think about it: they take on three different stages of development – yes, one of them is a mercifully cut-around sleeping bag – and that final one is just a masterwork of design. It’s creepy and shambling and disturbingly other-y. It also has almost no precedent in the Doctor Who universe; the closest the ’60s can give us is the Yeti, and only Douglas Camfield’s direction can save them. Here, the Axons feel inexorable. They’re slow, but they’re going to get you. They’re going to get you with their…protruberances.

How can I not love this, down in the depths of my cold, stony heart?

This is the first serial written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and their scripts are always challenges. I mean that in the best sense: they demand things out of the production team that, in this era at least, few others do. You can deride later endeavors like “Nightmare of Eden” or “Underworld,” but the truth is that those serials’ respective directors didn’t rise to meet the occasion, and (more than likely) producer Grahame Williams didn’t have a particularly clear vision of his own. The Baker/Martin scripts of the Pertwee era are far more successful, even in watered-down form; after all, “Axos” originally began life as a story about a giant skull spaceship landing in Hyde Park. The difference is that Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts knew what they could do, and when they could push the boat out at a little bit. In short, they knew just how much they could challenge themselves – how far they could reach. And then they were willing to go one step farther.

My favorite kind of TV is what I like to call “reach-exceeding-grasp television.” It’s an art form that has basically been lost, and it owes a tremendous debt to the theatre (although in a very different way than the comparison I drew regarding “Terror of the Autons”). “Reach-exceeding-grasp television” is what happens when extremely talented people have to come up with very creative solutions with about five dollars, a kettle, and some string. It’s a test of creativity on the part of the  program makers, and a test of engagement on the part of the audience. And it’s a test the audience routinely fails today.

d03-3g-012There’s this thing that happens almost every time I try to introduce one of my peers to classic Doctor Who. They get this sort of weird, fixed smile on their face, and they say (politely), “I can see why you like it. It’s fun because it’s so cheesy!” Well, no. You’ve fundamentally missed the point. I do not enjoy things because they are cheesy – in fact, I have a very limited tolerance for the high-irony parodies that are so popular among my generation. Yes, I can laugh at a really bad, uninspired, aimless movie as much as the next man, but then I want to cleanse my palette with something good. Does anyone really think I’ve sat and watched several hundred hours of my favorite TV series because I think it’s crap?

Quite the reverse is actually true. I started watching Doctor Who because as a kid, modern TV was often too frightening for me. It was too real, too literal. And I still don’t watch a lot of modern TV today, not only because I have no desire to see people’s heads blown off but because I get so damn tired of everything looking slick and perfect and shiny. Doctor Who has always appealed to me, in large part, because it takes such a lo-fi approach to so many very high concepts, and in doing so, weaves a kind of magic spell, a little internal bubble set apart from reality. Art – and by that I mean, creative products with some heart and soul in them – has lumps in it. It has little quirks and strangenesses that happen by accident or through lack of resources, combined with a perserverance to create something good. There are all sorts of flaws in famous Beatles tracks, but we don’t castigate them for that; we treat them as something unique and special and, dare I say it, timeless. Now, consider: the Beatles, at least, knew they were recording music for a certain amount of posterity. Doctor Who can lay no such claim before, I think, about 1983. Doctor Who was made for an ephemeral TV landscape, where maybe – maybe – one serial per year would get one repeat showing in the summer. And yet these people poured their skill and their craft into it to make it the best program it could possibly be.

Sometimes – hell, frequently – their reach exceeded their grasp. And I find that undeniably inspiring.

d03-3g-083What also fascinates me about this kind of TV is that it requires the viewer to meet it halfway. It adds an active element, however small, to what is an extremely passive art form. When the world on the screen is perfect to look at, you just tune out and let it wash over you. But with older television, especially older sci-fi and fantasy television, the show is making you a sort of business proposition. “Are you willing to accept this dishwashing liquid bottle as a spaceship? We’ve put some fins on it and spray-painted it silver to help you along.” “Why, yes, I will accept this bottle as a spaceship. It’s a nice little spaceship, in long shot at least.” And your brain and your imagination reach into the televisual world and sort of…fill in the gaps. It can be a wonderful, exhilarating process, but its success depends a lot on your natural curiosity.

I think the single biggest thing working against young people today – and I include my own generation in this, even as we reach the brink leading out of “young” – is an almost total lack of natural curiosity. A variety of factors has contributed to this: yes, advancements in CGI and the budgets spent on TV and movies, but also a reduction in how much kids read, the development of social media, and (I would argue) a complete over-reliance on standardized testing in schools. It’s all facts, it’s all data, it’s all quite literal. We are raising a generation that takes genuine pleasure in not thinking for themselves, in giving themselves over to the herd. They are the pen-pushers of tomorrow, and they want desperately to be popular. Not individuals, let me make this very clear; they want to be what everyone wants them to be.

d03-3g-150There is no room in that philosophy for the reach to exceed the grasp. Everything must be perfect, and once perfection is achieved, it must be bettered. Of course, the hilarious part of this is that in twenty or thirty years’ time, everything they think is perfect now will look just as cheap and dated as the stuff they turned their nose up at before. Special effects will have moved on and acting styles will have changed. Things will be faster and bittier and probably even more insulting to the general intelligence. And by then, maybe they will care – maybe the pendulum will swing back around again, and their kids will be the artists and the engineers who pick up a kettle and some string and say, “I could do something with this.” I hope I’m around to see it, at least a little bit. I’d like to believe I’ll leave the human race in capable hands.

In the meantime, though, I have my little bastion, my hundred and sixty serials of possibilities attempted and goals unreached. And as long as they continue to fire my imagination, I will continue to engage with them – again, and again, and again.

I dare you to call anything with that kind of artistic power “cheesy.”

So what do you think? Is it better for artistic media to strive for something it knows it can’t quite achieve, or should we be aiming for perfection? Is there a place for both of these approaches? Which appeals to you more?

…On the Boundaries of Childhood

Serial FFF: The Mind of Evil

Originally, I had thought to focus today’s blog post around the theme of prison. Then I realized how close that is to the theme of exile, which I tackled a couple of posts back, and the result would probably be much the same. Instead, I want to switch to a different tack and offer a counterpoint to last week’s post. “Terror of the Autons,” I argued, is artificial, kiddy-ish, and keeps the viewer at arm’s distance, almost as with a stage production. “The Mind of Evil,” though, is right there in your face. It is, in places, more raw, more violent, more real than almost any other Doctor Who story. My question is: are both of these approaches too extreme? And if so, where do you find the balance?

d03-3f-022Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Mary Whitehouse. As I get older, though, I find myself considering more and more what is appropriate for a young audience in several different regards: as a writer, as a teacher, and…well…as an adult who’s starting to spend time around kids and naturally feels a bit protective of them. I don’t tend toward restrictions on content, but I’m certainly more cautious and reflective on these matters than I would have been, say, five years ago. One of the more interesting reflections I’ve had on my own childhood is what an enormous amount of TV and movies I grew up on that revolve around Men with Guns (and sometimes Women with Guns, too). Whether it was Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Blake’s 7, or even Get Smart, I was constantly exposed to the threatened violence of guns. And I was terrified, as a child, of being kidnapped, murdered, or sharing an elevator with strangers, largely thanks to things I saw on the evening news; I still vividly remember the Polly Klaas murder. I was even petrified of people at the gas station just because they had tattoos (and I still have a strong aversion to tattoos). But I do not ever remember being scared by the gun-waving, hostage-taking atmosphere produced by so many fictional television series.

And that’s quite interesting – because it proves that all that violence really didn’t affect me in the way you might expect (I was, perhaps, too busy being involved in the story). Yet modern Doctor Who has gone to tremendous pains not to show gun violence inflicted on normal human beings, presumably because it might frighten or be imitated by a member of the child audience. In “Rose,” you never once see the victims fall to Auton blaster fire; you just hear the shots and the screams. In fact, the new show’s avoidance became so obvious I started watching for it, and it wasn’t until “Planet of the Ood” – at the start of series 4 – that we see humans killed by anything resembling traditional firepower. It’s still a fairly sparing event, though it’s become more common, as in the case of the Master. In “Last of the Time Lords,” he’s using a totally fantasy weapon (the laser screwdriver, God help us all) with a totally fantasy result. By “Death in Heaven,” she’s vaporizing people with something that, if still a bit fantastic, is a lot closer to a gun and clearly produces a painful death.

d03-3f-010That brings us neatly to a story like “The Mind of Evil,” from an era where the Autons shoot people squarely in the chest. I would argue that this serial, perhaps more than any other, has an uneasy aspect of violence quite separate from simple shock horror or outright gruesomeness. There’s a very convincing mob mentality aspect displayed during the prison riots, and the Master’s consequent takeover, that feels like it could really happen. Add to that the unsettling idea of the Keller Machine killing you through your worst nightmare, which – while fantasy – is the sort of thing that causes everyone to shudder as they contemplate their own private version. No less than four cliffhangers revolve around the threat of that trauma – one of them, being engulfed in flame! – and the fifth sees the Doctor seemingly shot point-blank. Jo, the child surrogate, is taken hostage and held at gunpoint multiple times throughout the story. It’s all tension-building stuff, for sure, but is it for kids?

One could argue that this may have actually been terribly appealing in the early 1970s, a time when little boys probably saw the campier aspect of prison life in TV screenings of The Italian Job, snuck into screenings of James Bond films and Get Carter, and tuned into the adventures of various secret agents and spies in ITC action-adventure series. The counter-argument, however, is that none of those products was ever aimed directly at children; their attendance or viewership manifested as a secondary benefit. Doctor Who was, at least until 1970, explicitly a children’s program, and has remained so implicitly ever since. Say what you will (and I recently had an argument about this), Who has never been marketed to the university student, young adult audience within its own home territory; that’s just how it found its footing in America. So it seems particularly odd, in those pre-international fame days of 1971, that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks seemed to be driving the train solidly back toward the child audience…with this serial close to the head of the locomotive. What was going on in their heads?

As I prepare for the inevitable fall semester, the possibility has emerged that I may once again teach a class in children’s literature, which is my graduate specialization. If that happens, it falls to me to choose about ten novels that will, in some way, represent children’s literature to an audience (teacher’s license-seeking education students) who is usually barely aware of it, and often sees it only as a conduit for teaching morals and lessons. Yet the books that make the most impact often fall well outside that category, including aspects of terror, confusion, darkness and morbid humor that my students frequently find disturbing. (And my response is usually, “Poor dears.”) In particular, my research focuses on non-realistic mid-grade novels (roughly ages 8 – 12) from roughly the Victorian era to the 1970s. That sweepingly covers a lot of your “children’s classics”: Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Wonderful Wizard of OzCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, and so on, many of which have been banned at various times, many of which are seen as “scary” or “disturbing” – by adults, that is. I also cover an interesting little sub-section of Victorian and Edwardian pulp fiction that was never intended for children but has since become part of children’s culture: I’ve done a little research in how the Sherlock Holmes stories are adapted for children, for instance, and of course you have your Dracula, your 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and your Time Machine. I read many of these myself when I was 11 or 12 and I found them absolutely gripping. Indeed, they prepared me to read real, adult literature from a very early age, because I was already versed in the structures and formalities of more advanced fiction (while simultaneously protected by the tropes of the genre). They were stepping-stone stories, if you will.

So is this the function of Doctor Who? Is it (to twist a quote) “the adult’s own show that children adore”? I think, for many of the eras of the show from 1970 onward, that idea has some validity. Despite following a loose formula and a certain amount of predictability, which lodges it comfortably within the realms of the pulp fiction it often imitates, Doctor Who provides its viewers with an exaggerated take on real-world scenarios and conflicts that force you to reflect: a quality of all good literature. And there are some really adult questions being asked by “The Mind of Evil.” Do we have the right to inflict pain, even on people who have caused pain themselves? Why do we consider prison an appropriate correctional concept, and do we in fact provoke violent people to commit more violence by keeping them in that environment? What sort of politics are we espousing when we trust in something being “British, of course” (a sarcastic sentiment uttered twice in this serial), and do the tables flip when it turns out our erstwhile hero is personal friends with such a controversial figure as Mao Zedong?

d03-3f-001This is really pretty heavy stuff. And perhaps, it needs to be when you’ve got a character like the Master in play. Without some sort of social or psychological undercurrent to root his goals to the ground, he just becomes a cackling megalomaniac – as we see so often with the Anthony Ainley incarnation. It’s really only when they start playing with his base nature in “Survival” that he suddenly snaps back and starts getting interesting again. Yet the Delgado Master isn’t two bowls into a breakfast of Froot Loops, unlike his successor; in fact, in this story, he comes off rather like an American businessman, all control, gentility, fur coat, and cigar. Perhaps there’s something worth considering in that the Doctor makes friends not with homicidal maniacs, but with high-minded zealots. The Master and Mao might have a few things to talk about.

And while we’re on this line of thought, isn’t it interesting that they never play the race card with Roger Delgado’s Master? Consider this: they hired a British actor of Belgian and Spanish descent, known for playing smooth-talking, stereotyped servants, ambassadors and villains from Spain, France, Italy, Egypt, the Middle East, and indeed, most anywhere else that might boast people with darker complexions and accentuated features (or as I like to call them, faces with character), and gave him a regular role as a master of mesmerism and disguise. Then they put him in a Nehru suit, gave him a Satanic look, and…he plays the character “white.” (Sorry; in the context of the argument, there’s no other way to put that.) It’s a huge surprise, really, because this is perfect territory for a gut-wrenching “Chinaman” or “Hindu mystic” characterization along the lines of Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No, Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu, or – to use a far-too-modern example – Alec Guinness’ Prof. Godbole (but evil, of course). And it’s a relief, too, because stereotyping the Master like that would render huge chunks of the Pertwee era absolutely unwatchable today. Yet here we are watching the Master associated with – and controlling – the Chinese, and fulfilling an Anglicized variant of the Fu Manchu role. Were Letts and Dicks conscious of all that he represents? And did they make a choice to veer away from the knee-jerk symbolism that, frankly, a lot of other children’s series of the period embraced with open arms? There’s a push-pull here, an insecurity over an invisible boundary of what is acceptable that just piques my curiosity.

I guess I should summarize my line of questioning by saying that I find “The Mind of Evil” fascinating because it makes me a little bit uncomfortable and unsure, and at the end of the day, that’s probably a good thing. I’m a little sorry to see this quality ease its way out of the program at large, although we’ll see softer treatments of adult themes in serials like “The Green Death” and “Planet of the Spiders.” At the same time, I can see why the production team probably tried intentionally to start toning it down. If anything, I’m surprised that it’s “Autons” that is called out for its horror aspects and not this story, because to my mind, something even vaguely realistic is a lot harder to defend to critics. Perhaps there’s simply enough going on here that the focus on violence is justified; it’s not cavalier and it’s never crass. Instead, it leaves you thinking – and that’s what any good children’s literature should do.

d03-3f-084With this post, I’d like to start a new tradition here at ROADSTER. I’ve noticed that although I receive many visitors and readers, few of you leave comments on the blog, and when you do, it often focuses on the superficial, Doctor Who-oriented elements of what I have to say. And I understand why: some of what I’m talking about is personal and potentially uncomfortable, and I can pretty much assure you that’s going to continue. But in the interest of generating a conversation here on the blog, each week I’d like to leave you with a sort of discussion question, something to take away and think about and then, if you like, come back and add your response. These questions will not focus on Doctor Who but on the overarching theme of each post. 

To start, then: what literature (and this could be a book, or a movie, or even an album) do you think functioned for you as a “turning point” into the adult world, and why was it significant to you? For me, it was probably a combination of Frank Herbert’s Dune and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both of which I read around 14 or 15 and remain among my very favorite books. One is immensely complex and one is stripped-bare simple, but they are both powerful works with a lot of depth (don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise). At a “kid” level, I was intrigued by their settings and window-dressings – and their neat cover art! – but when I finished reading them, I knew somehow that I had passed a certain point of no return. 

What about you?

…On the False Face of Artifice

Serial EEE: Terror of the Autons

You can tell something’s changed almost from the moment season eight begins. We’ve gone from the stark, beige uniforms and corridors of all those scientific bases to the bright, vibrant colors of the circus. As Rob Shearman notes in the DVD featurette, Plastic Fantastic, everything suddenly feels shiny and artificial; we have entered the realm, he says, of “bad taste.” He’s right: there’s a conscious plastickyness about “Terror of the Autons” that just can’t be accidental. Robert Holmes is too good a writer – and too full of morbid humor – not to be playing with ideas of commercialism and artifice all the way through his story, from the obvious things everyone notices to the somewhat more subtle. He is, perhaps, unintentionally aided by producer/director Barry Letts’ obsession with the new CSO technology; Mrs. Farrell’s chroma-key kitchen is just possibly the most egregious special effect in the entire history of the series, just because you’re left wondering what in hell it possibly achieved. (“Well, Barry, we saved fifty pounds by not decorating a theatrical flat with some pots and pans.”) In fact, it’s so easy to get distracted by the weird new tone of the series that you might not even notice a change that’s happened right before your eyes. This is just about as different a program from “Inferno” as you could possibly get, and it’s not just the shooting style or, indeed, anything in the realm of the visual.

Somewhere between 1970 and 1971, everyone became a type.

d03-3e-035A friend of mine rather ingeniously labeled season seven “The UNIT Show Starring Doctor Who.” I think that’s brilliant, absolutely on the nose. If I can stretch the theory a little bit, I would suggest that season eight is where it starts a fairly long trek into the realm of “The UNIT Sitcom.” Nearly everything I appreciated about the characterizations of the previous year is gone, replaced with a series of stock characters who, while delightfully performed, have very little relationship to real life. Instead, they perform necessary theatrical roles: the cranky genius; the military buffoon; the wide-eyed girl; the dashing young captain. Even the Doctor’s Time Lord visitor looks like a refugee from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Everybody is positioned to fulfill a different function within the framework, with very little overlap; if I didn’t know better, I’d assume Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were going down a list of demographics.

d03-3e-132The interesting thing in all of this is that, one serial (and several months) after the one about alternate-universe duplicates, the sole major character who didn’t get a doppelganger suddenly earns one. The Master is basically an Auton Doctor; he’s what the Doctor would become if he gave himself up to the machine. Except in moments of defeat, he is never less than calm, collected, and utterly efficient. Put simply, he’s a really slick bastard in a tailored suit, and from the start, you know he means business. The real Doctor, in contrast, opens the story by nearly blowing himself up.

The dichotomy between the Doctor and the Master is the most engaging aspect of the new status quo, but unfortunately, it serves to drive the lesser aspects, too. Both Time Lords are so obnoxiously clever that the rest of the regular cast have to be rendered intensely stupid. Ultimately, this will probably find its worst effect in the Brigadier, although I personally find Jo especially problematic (and more on this in another post). Right now, what’s mostly obvious is the huge shift in tone from “Spearhead from Space.” Despite hitting around 75% of the same basic script beats, “Terror of the Autons” is probably less than 50% as effective, and a lot of that’s just the staginess of it all. Without the more complex characterizations of the Doctor, Brigadier, and Liz – all of whom consciously shift their personal allegiances in that serial – “Autons” sits safely at arm’s distance except in moments where the real and recognizable (the chair, the doll, and especially the policeman) are thrust in the audience’s unsuspecting face. Most of those have even been neutered, to a point, by their fantastical representations; hold that troll doll up to the high street massacre in “Spearhead” and there’s just no comparison.

d03-3e-c410If the storytelling has been simplified, and the core cast rendered into “Autons” (of a kind), it follows that one of the major missing factors is simply motivation. Everybody good – with the Doctor the slight exception – is only concerned with saving the world. Everybody bad just wants to bring it crumbling down. That’s it. That’s all. It’s very “hive mind.” Even the Delgado Master, wonderfully performed though he is, does a bizarre and sudden volte-face at the end that can’t be explained because his character has no depth to explain it. It’s all perfectly entertaining stress-relief television, but compared to anything from the previous year, it feels incredibly homogenized and shallow.

And perhaps that really is what people want. Humans have an unerring preference toward simplification; that becomes clearer and clearer to me the older I get. It’s a survival mechanism of the brain, I’m sure, but it also has the dangerous aspect of needing to categorize things into boxes and systems. Everyone does it, even me. What I see more and more of, though, is the harm it causes to live in such an artificial mindset. It makes people less than they are.

Case in point: my week. In the past week, I have been asked by two different strangers “if I need help” in a public bathroom. Another asked if she needed “to ride in the elevator with [me] and press the buttons.” One home health nurse demonstrated her racism within twenty minutes of entering my home (the sing-song “Chinese” impression sealed the deal), and another, who made a big point about raising her children progressively, told me about a school costume contest where a girl won dressed as a chef with a moustache and “that she sure wouldn’t grow up right.” Who do these people think I am, and why? I find it hard to believe that I am simply a target based on my disability, though some of that is definitely happening. More, I just think it fails to occur to most people that the rest of the world might think or believe or value things they do not. And that’s very dangerous. For those of us who live on the margins, it can be detrimental.

Perhaps my biggest bugbear is religion. (Deep breath, kids.) Now, I don’t really want to cast aspersion upon those who follow an organized faith; I have friends of pretty much all the major religions and a couple besides, and what they believe is what they believe, and all power to them. I, too, believe what I believe, of a decidedly more secular nature. In theory, this should all work out fine: what I am led to understand about most religions is that they are built upon a personal relationship between the individual and the deity (or deities), which strikes me as something both private and very intimate. What troubles me, and has troubled me all my life, is that most religion seems to end up expressing itself in the need to make you – the non-included – into one of ussssss, or worse, the assumption that you already are. Living in the American South, I am constantly assumed to be a Christian – which is fine, I guess, except that apparently I’m supposed to fill some sort of totemic role while I’m at it. As a child with a disability, people told me I was “a mistake of God, put on this Earth to remind people how lucky they are.” (As an aside, in hindsight: how dare you.) As a young woman coming out, people told me I was “a mistake of God, put on this Earth to remind us that the Enemy can take many forms.” I am constantly reminded that God “has a plan for me,” that I should “put myself in God’s hands,” and – here’s a personal favorite – “God will make sure there are no wheelchairs in heaven.” All of which is so, so troubling in so many ways. I like who I am, thank you very much, and although I am not always pleased with how the world works for me, I have never been less than satisfied with my own skin. I’m me. You’re you. Isn’t that one of the great things about human existence?

Td03-3e-c502he bit that really kills me – and here, don’t worry, we’re coming back around to the Autons – is that so much of this is performed under the artifice of “niceness.” People are always “just trying to help” or “just being friendly.” No, you’re not thinking. You’re being selfish, and you’re making judgments. And yeah, we all make those sometimes – I was recently taken to task for making a few myself, and rightly so. But going around with a smile on your face, offering these little prosaic nuggets of wisdom in the spirit of a boy scout badge, doesn’t make them okay. It just absolves you of the need to actually engage and understand another person for who they are: not a type, but an individual.

Congratulations and welcome to the Nestene Consciousness. Mind the tentacles.