Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Doctor, Dissected

Lately I've been watching the new Doctor Who series one after the other on Netflix, in odd moments when nothing else will do. A long time ago, my friend in Scotland sent me some action figures from the second season, and I didn't know the first thing about them. My friend Gwyan, having grown up in the UK, is a big (old) Doctor Who fan, but I could never see the appeal, so I hadn't yet approached the new one. But I kept hearing about it, and I have to say when I was at Writers of the Future and got to know Sean Williams, an extraordinarily intelligent man and an avid Doctor fan (and a very nice person to boot), I began to reassess the preconceptions with which I had come to it when I was young.

My first attempt at the Doctor was as a twenty-something person, and there are a number of reasons why I never took to it.

First of all, and this is entirely childish and silly, the cheapness made me sort of slide off it without getting a grip, if that makes sense. I didn't know which episodes were good ones; the ones I watched seemed to be attached to ones I hadn't watched, and I couldn't get past the low-budget effects and the ridiculous voices and things that were supposed to be scary (or at least to be taken seriously). Perhaps I was someone who couldn't laugh at things enough; perhaps I didn't give it enough of my attention. Perhaps I was too young and conscientious when I tried it. In a weird way, this is probably also why I never became a smoker: the smell put me off and I just didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness to become addicted.

Secondly, when I did actually get a "good" episode, the girl companions in the show put me off. They were great girls, don't get me wrong: but they didn't do a lot, other than make mistakes or get rescued. I say this as someone who hasn't watched a lot of Doctor Who, but I have to say the same thing was true for me of the old Star Trek (which I have watched a lot of). I really wanted to like them - all my friends (mostly male) had this sort of connective tissue of geekiness about those two shows, but I just couldn't identify with any of the female roles, and it got in the way of my enjoyment.

(On a side note, I discovered Galaxy Quest a few years ago and really loved the way they played with this issue with Sigourney Weaver, the ultimate smart female role model, someone whose role in the tv-show-within-the-film is to repeat what the ship's computer says. It seemed to personify all that I disliked about the old Star Trek, and made me love the movie's writers).

However, I'm finding that I like the new Doctor. He seems willing to feel things, and his companions actually save his life and participate in the solutions, not just the problems; the effects manage to emulate the old show without being obviously cheap. They even emulate some of the way the old shows used sets and costumes that were laying around the lots -- I'm always a sucker for a mixture of science fiction and costume drama.

But along with this new interest is a discovery that I can't find any interesting overall analysis of the Doctor Who construct. I've found many analyses of individual episodes or specific incarnations of the Doctor, but people looking at the underlying cultural elements of the show as a whole seem a bit thin on the ground. Please - correct me if I'm wrong. And please take this next bit with a grain of salt.

It seems to me that some really brilliant person came up with a concept that would appeal to those intelligent, un-macho young men in that particular geeky stage between twelve and fifteen who hope to become someone dashing and useful someday. Think about it: an eccentric man who is a Time Lord (the name itself is terribly indicative of someone with power over interesting and important things like time and space), roaming the universe alone (appeals to loners) having adventures. He is always accompanied by an attractive young woman, who has been impressed by his acumen and persuaded to accompany him around the universe (she is also changed out before she can start to age). Many of the Doctors were thin (not heavily-built) men with unprepossessing features, and yet they were terribly competent and had excellent abilities; and usually they were able to defeat their enemy simply with their wits (and sometimes with little else). Does this not sound like the esprit d'escalier embodied in a character? How many of us geeks (and yes, I include myself here) wished when we were young that we could come up with that exact right thing to do or say at the moment when it was required - the vanquishing, or at least reducing, of the bully with our wit and debonair cunning, the chance to save the day in a way that made that attractive girl person notice us?

Most of the people I know who were really huge fans of the earlier incarnations of the Doctors from the 1960's and 70's are intellectual-leaning males. If my experience is anything to go by, it would explain a great deal of the show's appeal to these folks as young men. It was smartly written, and values words; it was intellectual rather than visceral (the early Doctors seem to approach events using their reason, not their feelings); it treated women as smart and even intensely interesting people but preferred them to be pretty and to need help; it was mainly concerned with gadgets and robots and creatures who wanted to either mindlessly kill or take over the world. There is something in geek nature, I think, which likes to imagine that the world is controllable, and the Doctor Who series embodied this preference for reason and logic overcoming chaos (interestingly, Star Trek had a completely different message, and that beloved creature of logic-loving geeks - Spock himself - was not infallible: he was subject to periodic bouts of chaotic thinking, because the show required emotion to be the winning quality. Kirk's character, of course, made sure non-geeks could like the show too, being all about manly emotion and impulsiveness).

With all this in mind, I have to say I very much appreciate the kind of writing that allows the new Doctors to be men who have the same sharp intellect as the old ones, the same quirky weirdness which appeals to intellectuals and geeks and young boys, and yet manages to have an extra layer of emotion written in underneath, that extra something which makes people like me who are sticklers for emotional motivation willing to watch, and go on watching. I find that although I still find the Dalek irritating (sorry, fans, I came to it too late), and don't particularly like the cybermen, the fact that the main characters are so believable and, as believable people, are responding with distress to the monsters, makes me willing to go along - and as a result, interestingly, I am more willing to go back and watch the old shows. And I do it with a more open mind, coming to it as historical documentation of the world-building, rather than wanting to laugh outright at creatures made of plastic bags and tin foil.

It means a lot to me to see that the world is changing in this way, allowing us grown-up girls to reclaim bits of what we never could access before. When smart and even-handed people are on the teams that write the new stories, the world changes. Like Title IX, which has changed innumerable girls' lives, the acceptance of girls (and non-heterosexuals too) into the Land of Geek - and the accommodation of their sensibilities - is a wonderful thing, something relatively new. I think this same approach could benefit a lot more of our popular pastimes (I'm not naming gaming, oh, no, not me). The fact that the girls in the new episodes are kickass, and that the Doctor is able to care about things in his heart and soul, and the attention to detail which comes with a larger budget, means that a door has been opened, and people like the younger me, girls or others with geeky romantic adventure leanings, can also get into the Tardis and fly away with the Doctor, and for that I am grateful. It's a new world, and I like it.


Elusis said...

Where would you recommend someone start who has never watched any Dr. Who, and has some of the same misgivings you have about the older stuff?

Heather McDougal said...

Well, I'm no expert but I started with Season one, episode one of the new series (which began in 2005). It's pretty self-explanatory as you go along, and you get to know more about it by watching. You can also go look at the Wikipedia article about Doctor Who, which explains some of the idiosyncratic elements of the show.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. I was always a Trekkie but could never get into Doctor Who. A (male) friend of mine introduced me to the latest series when it became available on DVD here and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. I'm now hooked on Torchwood.

Brett C. Nance said...

After recently watching seasons 1-4 of the new stuff, I would like to say start with season 1, but I think season 2 was the start of the really impressive work (and David Tennant).

Great write-up, btw.

T. Steelman said...

I just found and am reading a book called Chicks Dig A Time Lord. It has some analysis much like what you have done by by women.

I myself am female and a geek. Since I am also over 50, I was a geek before it was cool. I liked the older Dr. Who series but I LOVE this one. All 3 of the Doctors in it have a wonderful way of capturing his wonder and joy AND his pain and sorrow. It's just brilliant.

Sennethe said...

The new/modern series does seem to have much better writers. Part of that is a product of the times. Aside from the different social values I'm sure there are a lot of other shows from back then that had less than stellar plots and scripts. And there's the bonus that the writers of today were fans of the original show. And they're getting some big name writers to do individual episodes (Gaiman is one I know of and recognize).

There were a few male companions in the old ones and I remember at least one of them getting himself in trouble all the time and being a geeky math genius to boot. Don't know how that fits with your theory.

Where to start watching? Tennant is my favorite of the new ones, but I've not seen Smith yet and Eccleston barely got started when he left. Going back to the old ones, you might have better luck with production values and scripts by starting with some of the later ones (say from the 80s) rather than the ones from the very beginning. Things kind of fell apart again at the very end as I remember though.

Dave said...

I watched the series very much out of order and it took me a long time to figure out what was happening. Some of the effects were jarringly cheesy and the leading character seemed to change his appearance without explanation. It is embarrassing to admit that I kept watching long enough to figure out what was going on and actually grow to like at least a few of the Doctors. I think looking stupid actually added something to the Daleks' menace. For a Time Lord, the Doctor seems curiously to change with the times. I hope it not the case that each age gets the Doctor they deserve, as I haven't cared for him for a while.

Kyriu said...

I wonder if you shouldn't try the BBC radio series. After all it started there and the radio is better for FX (cos it's all the the minnnnnnnddddddddddddd)



Mim said...

I hope the new Doc gets to the States. I loved the old one for its goof-spoof braininess, and of course the scarf. A womanly accessory in guy-guy USA.

Doctor Mim

Patricia said...

You have inspired me to try more of the Tennant series and the current one both of which I've been curious about. 'Blink' was an excellent episode.