Monday, March 21, 2005

Six

Before slipping out of negative mode.


RTD has also said that he wants the stories to be about "human beings" because no-one cares what happens on the planet Zog.


This strikes me as an odd thing to say about a series originally promoted as "an Adventure in Time and Space." The whole point about the series is that there is a magic box that can take you anywhere in the universe. If you aren't going to step through your magic wardrobe and come out on strange, alien planets, then I'm not sure that there is any point in having one. The original creators of the show interpreted "anywhere in Time and Space" quite broadly: pure fantasy as well as space-opera and historical time travel. Whatever else you can say about "The Celestial Toymaker" (*) and "The Mind Robber", you couldn't really have imagine them being done in any format apart from Doctor Who.


People who write about the origins of the show often imagine a split between, say, Sidney Newman, who wanted a very historically based children's drama series, and, say, Verity Lambert who admitted bug-eyed monsters and b-movie science into it. But you could just as well see it as a tension between, say, Terry Nation, who thought in terms of alien jack-booted Nazis and scientific holocausts, and, say, David Whitiker, who saw it all as a rather wonderful fairy tale.


The question of earth-bound horror vs alien worlds is as old as the programme. The original premise precluded any stories set in the present day: Ian and Barbara are as much exiles from 1963 as the Doctor is an exile from his mysterious home planet. I rather liked that. It was easier to believe that Ian and Barbara were wandering the universe but very much hoping to get home one day, than that Sarah-Jane was hanging out with the Doctor for want of anything better to do with her time. The first adventure which actually occurred in the present-day was William Hartnell's penultimate outing. There is, on the one hand, something very scary about the moment when Susan to run an errand for the Daleks on the planet Skaro: one human, all alone on a hostile alien world. But there is also something to be said for Jon Pertwee's famous dictum that there is nothing very surprising or scary about meeting a Yeti in Tibet, but they become very alarming if you encounter one in your bathroom in Tooting. (Having lived in Tooting, I can confirm this.) Scary aliens in a normal human environment, or normal humans in a scary alien environment.


If RTD means that he wants all the stories to have human interest, then of course he is right. Which begs the question, when didn't they. I think that there were two stories which had primarily alien supporting casts: "The Sensorites" and "The Web Planet". I agree that men in giant ant suits is not the way to go for the new series. If he means Pertwee style earthboundedness, the Doctor as Agent Mulder foiling this months alien invasion, then I think he is making a great mistake. ("Wanderer" or "traveller" are two irreducible components of the Doctor's character.)


"Planet Zog" is a media code-word for "science fiction is impenetrable". When someone refers to "the planet Zog", you know that references to anoraks cannot be far away. RTD knows very well that the series, in its heyday -- the duration of the first four Doctors -- was totally mainstream: not "cult TV" but "a children's programme" or "that thing that nearly everyone watches on a Saturday night." I don't know when it got the reputation for being watched mainly by a freemasonry of dedicated fans; I don't know when, if ever, that actually became true. Perhaps it suited Michael Grade to say that Doctor Who should be cancelled because it was only watched by the kinds of people who watch Doctor Who, in the same way that Panorama should be cancelled because it is only watched by the kinds of people who watched Panorama. He wanted, after all, a BBC that was mainly watched by the kinds of people who watched Eastenders, and he largely got his way. But I think that the fanboy reputation mainly came along when the programme went off-air -- when, by definition, the Faithful were the only ones keeping its memory alive. So RTD wants to tell the audience that his new series is for everyone, not just "fans" and "anoraks". (I think that the terms "anorak" was first used in clip compilation in 1992.) If he does this by using language which panders to negative stereotypes about science fiction and its enthusiasts, then I can't say I blame him. But I very much hope that he doesn't believe it himself.


Meanwhile, Mr Ecclestone has been quoted as saying that he didn't like the programme when he was a kid because all the Doctors had posh accents, and that this implied that he, a northern lad, couldn't be a hero. This seems to be an example of two things.


1: The airbrushing of Sylvestor McCoy out of Doctor Who history. (I am sort of assuming that the Daleks-can't-go-up-stairs-meme is so prevalent, and RTD so wants to be the person who abolished this cliche, that he has wished "Remembrance of the Daleks" out of existence, and the whole of seasons 25 and 26 with it, which is a shame, because on the whole they were rather good.)


2: An absurd inverted snobbery. (I was about to write "political correctness" but that phrase can only be used in conjunction with the expression "gone mad, I tell you.") It does, I suppose, say something about British society circa 1963 - 87 that the Doctor, being a scientist, was conceived of as male and speaking with "received pronunciation". It certainly says something about our attitude to "science". You only needed to give William Hartnell a white coat to turn him into the personification of the "boffin". Scientists. Blokes. Old, white haired. Mad as coots. Very clever, of course, but you wouldn't want your daughter to marry one. One of the ways in which, I think, the show gradually lost its way is that, having invented the ludicrous and brilliant idea of "re-generation", they nevertheless created an established "type" for the main character. Doctor Bill, Doctor Pat and Doctor Jon were totally unlike each other. Doctors Peter, Colin, Sly and Paul were all pretty much variations on Doctor Tom. So, by all means, let's have northern Doctors. Let's have women Doctors and black Doctors. (Patrick Troughton very nearly was the first black Doctor.) But spare us this class-warrior nonsense. If Tom Baker's Shakespearian tones imply that little boys from Yorkshire can't be heroes, then Doctor Chris's dialect implies that I can't be a hero. Which is rubbish. Doctor Who is the patron saint of the middle-class, spotty-kid with specs at the back of the classroom, who'd rather play with a chemistry set or read a book than play football or have fights.


Then God, stand up for nerds!


(*) For example "The BBC wiped the tapes, so I've never seen it."

11 comments:

Louise H. said...

I wince too whenever I hear the increasingly popular statement that SF/fantasy "isn't about people".

Obviously some of it isn't. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, to pick a rather extreme example, is about precisely one person. (Until the second series, when first person fades to background and series is about second person.) And some of the bad stuff isn't about people, just as some of the bad thrillers, detective novels and chick-lit don't have a recognisable human being in the cast. B5 was pure people, especially Londo and G'Kar, Buffy was teenagers who sort of count as people, Enterprise is trying hard and partly suceeding. Asimov's Robots are Kantian people.

I was thinking about this the other day because I was contemplating starting my third Robert Reed novel. He writes very well but his people are all thousands of years old and somehow their failure to change in nature doesn't ring true. And if the people aren't right the plot tends to become irrelevant. You have to wonder why RTD doesn't know that already, or whether as Andrew suggests he's playing up to the anti-SF crowd

Not everything is or should be about people though. As a teenager we studied Larkin's "At Grass". I remember being deeply disappointed when our English teacher explained that it wasn't about horses at all but people. I much preferred horses at the time. And no matter how often I go back to it, it's always about horses to me. Fantasy's like that sometimes; you just want it to be about aliens and Dorset quarries not continuous allegory and interpersonal relationships.

Back to Doctor Who. I feel you're a little harsh on Christopher Ecclestone, who was supposedly not commenting on the whole history of DW but on what he felt about it as a child. Presumably he encountered one or at the most two Doctors at a formative age. I suspect he wasn't the boffin type anyway. Although given the lack of Northern accents on at the time one feels he must have been turned off an awful lot of TV, which is a little odd for a prospective actor.

Sam Dodsworth said...

RTD has also said that he wants the stories to be about "human beings" because no-one cares what happens on the planet Zog.

Many writers feel thay have to make this kind of disclaimer when presenting SF to the general public. It's irritating because it suggests contempt for their material, but it's also the best defence against newspaper articles with titles like "Margaret Atwood Beams Down - Will Her New Book Live Long and Prosper?"

There's also, of course, a sense in which it's true. The most dangerous trap in writing a continuing series is continuity - feeding off what has gone before until all that's left is the endless repetition of debased versions of previous storylines. It's not a problem that's unique to SF and fantasy but it is most often associated with them, perhaps because the need to keep to a common background shades easily into an obsession with continuity. I think it's this obsession that people rightly associate with both "anoraks" and "planet Zog".


Mr Ecclestone has been quoted as saying that he didn't like the programme when he was a kid because all the Doctors had posh accents, and that this implied that he, a northern lad, couldn't be a hero... (I was about to write "political correctness" but that phrase can only be used in conjunction with the expression "gone mad, I tell you.")

I think "political correctness" would be Mr Eccleston saying that Dr Who shouldn't have a posh accent because it wasn't providing a good example for northern lads. Since he's expressing a personal preference, it's just his own inverted snobbery. Which raises two questions in my mind:

1) What, exactly, would be wrong with giving Dr Who a northern accent out of "political correctness"? (Consider, for example, why prefering a northern accent is a matter of "inverted snobbery"...)

2) Why shouldn't Mr Eccleston play Dr Who as the kind of character he wanted to see when he was a kid?

Sam Dodsworth said...

Louise H:

...I was contemplating starting my third Robert Reed novel. He writes very well but his people are all thousands of years old and somehow their failure to change in nature doesn't ring true.

I've had very much the same experience of Robert Reed. I read and mildly enjoyed "Marrow", but gave up about a third of the way into "Sister Alice" out of lack of interest.

Finally, I read a review (by John Clute, I think) that mentioned that Reed is a keen long-distance runner, and related that to the theme of endurance in his novels. That made sense to me. His characters don't change because he's interested in people's ability to persist and remain unchanged, but it can make for rather dull, depressing stories.


I wince too whenever I hear the increasingly popular statement that SF/fantasy "isn't about people".

I take comfort from the thought that if it is increasingly popular then it's probably because SF themes are becoming better-integrated into the mainstream, so there are more writers who feel the need to publicly distance themselves from pulp SF.

Charles Filson said...

I've always held the opinion that SF stories weren't really about the science. It irks me a bit when folks try to push too much science into science fiction or complain that the science is implausible. (I think that they most often mean improbable, but that's beside the point.)

The best science fiction stories are ones that would or could work in nearly any setting. They just happen to be set in space. X-Men is to a large degree about prejudice and racism. But instead of making it white vs. black they made the lesson palatable to kids growing up in families where racism was inherant. The meme of equality was embedded without tackeling the insurmountable prejuduice of white-supremacy. By pulling the social or moral question out of reality, we side-step prejudices and deal directly with memes. This is, at its best, the function of science fiction. I can't of course ignore the fun of, say...Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.

Speaking of which, isn't Firefly a great Western...er...Space Opera?

I really like the idea of a Black Doctor as long as he was a bit of a crazy eccentric. A Woman Doctor...the trouble is that it wouldn't seem like the Doctor. She just wouldn't be the same. not sure why. Judy Dench as Doctor Who? That might work...

Dan Hemmens said...

Charles Filson: "The best science fiction stories are ones that would or could work in nearly any setting. They just happen to be set in space."

I think you're right up to a point. Certainly there are fundamental elements of a story (characterisation, pacing, and all that jazz) that are important whether you're writing a soap or an opera. An SF story that doesn't work as a story is going to fall flat on its face.

On the other hand, I do think that there are some things you just *can't* do outside of an SF setting. 1984, for example, absolutely required the Thought Police, the Anti-Sex-League, the Telescreens and all the rest (all of them, ultimately, SF elements, although here the "S" stands more for "Speculative" than for "Science") because it had to portray an absolutely perfect image of a totalitarian society. You could have told a *similar* story about, say, a man living in Soviet Russia, but it wouldn't have had the same effect or impact. Even today we talk about "Big Brother" and "newspeak", and these are tremendously powerful concepts.

Phil Masters said...

I've always held the opinion that SF stories weren't really about the science.

Only the good ones are about the science, perhaps.

I mean - if they're stories that could be about anyone in any setting, what's the point in making them SF? That just alienates the people who think that SF is childish, or who get distracted by the odd furniture. SF without science is just, well, fiction. Which is fine, but doesn't need its own genre. At most, you get a bunch of cheap metaphors and distancing devices to get you past a few twits who don't want to think about particular ideas.

SF is, to swipe an old and boring catchphrase, a literature of ideas. The trouble is, ideas are quite hard to handle. You can simplify and abstract them down to a sort of formal puzzle with no real relationship to reality (e.g. an Asimov robot story), or you can pull the classic Olaf Stapledon/Greg Egan trick and smack the bastard readers square between the ideas with solid intellect, and to hell with the enfeebled wimps who were fwited by a maffs teacher at the age of twelve...

Or you can play to the genre's other strength, specifically raw sensawunda. Which is enormous fun, but, well, ultimately a bit limited.

Which, dragging it back to Andrew's topic, is I guess one of the reasons that Dr Who? is often superior to the big American SF series. At minimum, it regularly manages to get the sensawunda right, and sometimes, it even sidles up towards an idea or two. Whereas Star Trek is terrified of tackling ideas in any depth and often strangely short on wonder, and Babylon 5 gets by on second-hand wondrous images and very feeble "characters" and "morality".

(Now, if you want a non-UK SF series that almost manages to invade Who territory at times, I'll tell you about my affection for Farscape. And no, I haven't seen Firefly.)

Charles Filson said...

Big Fan of Farscape. I thought it was pretty good. Firefly ran for half a season and got canceled. I thought that Bab5 was good for its time. There was another series on about 5-7 years ago...I can't recall the name of it. A bunch of Science Fiction short stories on the Sci Fi Channel. One about Gender bending through genetic manipulation, another about a police Car that fell in love with its driver and commited murder. Another about sex and virtual reality. Great series...wish I could recall the name.

Dan,

I agree with you, but maybe the science in science fiction is not the point, but rather the vehicle. 1984 was Science Fiction only because it needed to be to tell the story. It started with perfect totalitarianism and then progressed to the thought police from there.

A lot of crap science fiction (like the most recent incarnations of Star Trek) starts with the science (Warp Drive) and then trys to fit a story around it. The original series started with the idea (amoung others) of projecting various facets humanity back at us in archtypal aliens, and then invented Warp Drive in order to do this. The science came second. The stories were the same stories told by the Greeks...they just went to strange islands at sea. Now we go to strange planets in space.

And Sensawunda is great, but a sense of wonder in what? Life, scientific advance, humanity? This has to be asked first or you won't have a theme.

Charles Filson said...

I should add, in case it is not obvious, that in that Science Fiction series that I can't recall the name of, each of the stories is really about humanity, and then science was used to examine a particular facet of it out of context.

Anonymous said...

"1984 was Science Fiction only because it needed to be to tell the story."

Precisely, but isn't that the opposite of your original point - that the best SF stories are the ones that would or could work in nearly any setting.

Not trying to catch you out here, like I say I do actually agree with your original statement more or less, I just think that the additional point needed making.

I suppose the position I'm coming from (and from what I can tell, the position you too are coming from) can be summed up as something like "the best SF stories are the ones which are good stories in their own right, but which work best with a particular set of SF elements, which are the elements present in the story". Although that's a bit long winded.

Dan Hemmens said...

"1984 was Science Fiction only because it needed to be to tell the story."

Precisely, but isn't that the opposite of your original point - that the best SF stories are the ones that would or could work in nearly any setting.

Not trying to catch you out here, like I say I do actually agree with your original statement more or less, I just think that the additional point needed making.

I suppose the position I'm coming from (and from what I can tell, the position you too are coming from) can be summed up as something like "the best SF stories are the ones which are good stories in their own right, but which work best with a particular set of SF elements, which are the elements present in the story". Although that's a bit long winded.

Charles Filson said...

Anonymous Dan said:

I suppose the position I'm coming from (and from what I can tell, the position you too are coming from) can be summed up as something like "the best SF stories are the ones which are good stories in their own right, but which work best with a particular set of SF elements, which are the elements present in the story". Although that's a bit long winded.


Which is probably nearly exactly what I meant. Well said AD.