Monday, July 17, 2006

Doctor Who -- Notes

1: 'Camp'
The word 'camp' means 'a gay man affecting effeminate mannerisms' and 'ironic self-awareness; enjoying a dramatic work because of its faults.' Not sure if the two meanings are linked: is there a lot of effeminacy in camp drama, or do effeminate men have a tendency to send themselves up?

Doctor Who has sometimes been 'camp': a lot of fans enjoy watching the bad old stories just because they are so bad; and in the later Tom Baker stories you sometimes feel that the cast are deliberately camping it up. And at least since John Nathan-Turner, there has been no shortage of Doctor Who fans who are themselves camp. Before it was discovered that they were all asexual, fandom accepted and even embraced the stereotype of the gay Doctor Who fan. And the stereotype was sufficiently recognisable in the gay community that it was used in Queer as Folk. (Can't remember who wrote that.)

I am not completely sure where the link comes from. I wonder if it started out as pure theatrical camp: most luvvies sometimes 'did' Doctor Who, just like they 'did' panto? Or is it just that the dandyish / bohemian clothes fit in with a certain kind of gay aesthetic?

There's never really been a tradition of Doctor Who slash. There are very few successful parodies of Doctor Who either. Star Trek is so po-faced that imagining Kirk slipping on a banana skin or giving Spock a good rogering presents a challenge. Who porn and Who slash could be quite hard to distinguish from actual Who. 'Curse of the Fatal Death', which largely consisted of fart jokes, might be considered slash since it ended up with the Doctor going off arm-in-arm with the Master. How did fans react to it? By arguing about whether or not it was canon.

If you insist on sexualising the Doctor, then it makes sense to think of him as a rather repressed gay man: a succession of close friendships with much younger women would seem rather sordid, not to say paedophilic, if he was straight. Maybe we are now supposed to believe that all of his previous 'companions' were more or less girl-friends; but frankly, if you can ret-con it so that Doctor Patrick was screwing Zoe, then you can ret-con anything, and there is no real point in pretending that the programme we're discussing has anything to do with Doctor Who.

So I wonder if the gay sub-text in the new series is another example of RTDs self-consciousness? Fans have sometimes speculated that the Doctor might be gay so the idea that the Doctor might be gay has to be alluded to within the series itself. If this is right, then the series has become camp because it has become camp...

2: Sci-fi

Doctor Who
has in the past done a lot of pretty straight sci-fi – galactic empires and ray guns ('Frontier in Space') generation starships ('The Ark', 'The Ark in Space') and more flying saucers and aliens invading the earth then you can shake a magnetic core at. It has also done a lot of gothic with a paper-thin sci-fi gloss ('Daemons', 'Horror of Fang Rock'); not to mention swashbuckling with a science fiction gloss ('Androids of Tara') and fantasy with a science fiction gloss ('Keeper of Traken'). And it has also done straight, unapologetic fantasy ('Celestial Toymaker' or 'Mind Robber'.) There have been attempts to do Proper Science Fiction – in their different ways 'The Space Pirates', 'Logopolis' and 'Kinda' might all have been in that category. But they were atypical and not necessarily successful.

I very much take the point that the alien-which-sucks-you-in-to-the-TV-screen and the alien-which-sucks-you-into-the-child's-paintings are demons, working according to a metaphorical logic. This kind of monster has only rarely appeared in Doctor Who in the past: it's more what I associate with Sapphire and Steel. But there is no mismatch between 'magical' creatures of this kind and the concept of Doctor Who.

My problem isn't that they are demons; nor that the sci-fi justification for them is weak. It's that the script writers can't be bothered to set the ground rules. I don't need the television monster to be explained with scientific accuracy: I would quite like to know what its powers and weaknesses are supposed to be.

Remember 'Curse of Fenric'? The monsters were mutants from the future that drunk human blood. In case you missed the point, they landed at Whitby. At some point, Ace says 'Can you really use a cross to repel a vampire?' and the Doctor says 'It's not the cross which bothers them: but human faith sets up a psychic barrier they can't get past.' Pure gobbledegook, but it established a rule, and they stuck to the rule for the rest of the story. The communist repels the vampire with his hammer and sickle; the wet vicar fails to repel one with a cross; and Ace nearly spoils the Doctor's plan because the psychic barrier created by her faith in him is so strong.

Internal logic. Is it too much to ask?

3: Race
Micky is a person with dark coloured skin who lives in a part of London where lots of people with dark coloured skin live. His accent is also the kind of accent which dark skinned people from that part of London sometimes have. It would have been quite silly if Rose didn't have any black neighbours. The fact that, in episode 1, he is a bit of an idiot; and the fact that he is dating Rose, who happens to have light coloured skin, is neither here nor there. They were just two characters. I don't think any element of any story would have been any different if Mickey had been white and Rose had been black, or if they had both been black, or if they had both been white. That is why diversity quotas for dramas are a silly idea.

Maybe a hypersensitive person could have said that it was a mistake that at the end of the first episode, Mickey was (arguably) represented as ape-like. But I'm inclined to say that we've been through racism and come out the other side and that although this is the kind of joke which could have been made in such a way as to be very offensive indeed, it wasn't meant in that way, so no-one took it in that way.

Is it true that people only enjoy TV shows if some of the main characters look like them? Will a person with dark coloured skin be unable to enjoy 'Robin Hood' unless someone invents an Afro-Saxon outlaw?

I thought that the President of England was a bit of a clich̩ Рthe wise, patrician statesman with just a trace of his Jamaican accent. I can't think of another example off hand, but I still think it's a bit of a clich̩. Captain Zac, (not to be confused with Captain Jack or indeed Captain Jack) on the other hand, was a character who I really liked and believed in for the whole story. I'd like to see more of him. But it was still striking that someone had said in both stories 'The highest status character ought to be the one with dark coloured skin, so that no-one can accuse us of being patronising.'

I have no doubt whatsoever that when Tennant decides he has had enough, the TARDIS will be occupied by a Doctor of colour. By itself, a second regeneration won't be very exciting: there's a danger that the show-biz pages will just say 'They are changing the lead actor yet again in a last ditch attempt to save that series which isn't as good as it used to be.' To get the tabloids onside, Davies will have to do something unexpected -- and that means either a female Doctor or a black Doctor. But the Daviesite dynamic wouldn't survive a gender reversal; the audience understands that Doctor Who is about an Unattainable Hero and Ordinary Girl. Unattainable Heroine and Ordinary Boy would appeal to a quite different audience. So the headline grabber has to be 'POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GOES MAD IN THE TARDIS: NOW DOCTOR WHO IS BLACK.'

I don't actually think the situation will arise. I imagine the BBC will renew the series as far as the fifth season, but not for a sixth; and that Tennant will stick around for the duration. But I've been wrong before. Frequently.

Did you know that when the series was first on the rocks, JNT had a meeting with Sydney Newman (please don't anybody say 'Who's Sydney Newman?') to talk about how he would revitalise the series. Newman said
1: Less sci-fi
2: Do a story in which everyone gets shrunk down really, really small
3: Turn the Doctor into a woman.

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13 comments:

BlueTack Mouse said...

Andrew said... "Internal logic is it too much to ask?"

This touches on previous discussions of tight plotting as a virtue of SF.

I would ask "Is technical ability a geek value?" Outside of SF I'm into the geek music genres of heavy metal & progressive rock. Both of which approve of people can play very well.

Unlike mainsteam pop music which is about how pretty the act is and how cool their cloathes are.

So can Dr Who be about well writen stories? Or is it going to be The Fast Show of SF - a bunch of one liners with more holes than a tea bag?

Phil Masters said...

Camp. The two meanings are at least traditionally somewhat associated. In fact, the OED recognises just the one adjectival definition; "Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals."

Blame a slightly dated view of the theatre, perhaps... I suspect that, these days, it's all about enjoying rather flamboyant inappropriateness; about cocking a snook at the straights, whatever they happen to be straight about.

(The OED doesn't know why that sort of snook is called a snook, by the way. Very strange.)

But anyway... The thing that annoyed me about the final declarations of love wasn't what they did to the show in general; it was that they totally invalidated "The Girl in the Fireplace", which is far and away my favourite episode of the series just gone. It was explicitly described as "the Doctor falls in love", and for me it worked; the Doctor could have been fond of people before, including Rose, but for him to love someone required that person to be his equal - and suddenly, he discovered a human who qualified. (To prolong the dodgy gayness metaphor, Madame de Pompadour was the woman so right for him that she could make a gay man turn straight. Ref. Chasing Amy or something.) That put all the companions in context; they were victims of the Just A Friend syndrome. It also made Mickey's presence in that episode essential, despite his failure to actually do anything much; by being present as Rose's boyfriend, he avoided the need for some kind of fraught little jealousy sub-plot.

And the producers made damn sure that we took the idea seriously on its own terms, by things like casting David Tennant's actual girlfriend, giving a good chance of a really effective spark or at least of audience members believing that there was one.

But if the Doctor loved Rose, what the hell was he feeling for Madame de Pompadour? Suddenly, he's just an emotionally incompetent two-timer.

Which said, I'd like to convince myself that he deliberately didn't say that. I don't know if, as Mike Taylor suggested, he deliberately cut the connection, but hey, he's a super-intelligent timelord; he'd surely know when his two minutes were about to expire. Imagine that he paced that conversation just right. He honestly wanted to say goodbye to a companion he liked; he'd been told by the recent meeting with Sarah Jane Smith that leaving a woman who felt for him without proper closure was unspeakably cruel; he knew that Rose loved him, and there was no fixing that. So he left her with the belief that he was about to return the sentiment, while neatly dropping the connection just in time, thereby avoiding a lie that would have damaged his integrity or possibly choked him and given him away. Twisted, but an act of both honesty and kindness in its way.

I'd like to think that's the "correct" interpretation, but I can't really convince myself. I think that the scriptwriters just decided that going out on a tragically truncated declaration of mutual love was the best thing to do. Though perhaps they at least realised that having the Doctor actually say those words would have trashed the character too completely, which gets them some points.

Will a person with dark coloured skin be unable to enjoy 'Robin Hood' unless someone invents an Afro-Saxon outlaw?

Been done, twice to my knowledge.

I imagine the BBC will renew the series as far as the fifth season, but not for a sixth; and that Tennant will stick around for the duration.

Plausible, but who knows? Five or six series seems to be a decent run for this kind of show (at least in America, although each series is of course twice the length there); seven is a real achievement, but at that point too many people on both sides of the matter start getting bored. We'll see.

Michael Hanretty said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Hanretty said...

While I agree with - or at least can sympathise in some small way with - most of your points, Andrew, I never got the impression that Davies was at all working to a 'race quota'. The only thing I found patronising was (as you've already mentioned) the perfectly-integrated 1950s section of working class London featured in the episode with 'The Wire'; something I imagine could have had to do with an inability to turn away eager extras.

"Sorry, but we're not hiring black people today."

Now imagine the headlines that would have resulted from THAT.

As for the two other examples, well, Don Warrington has already played Rassilon in an Eighth Doctor audio play - and it'd be hard to come up with a higher position of authority in Whodom. He's an Old Vic actor with an authoritarian presence and a damn fine voice, plus an existing link to the series; what more do you want? And, frankly, I don't see how a mannered, patrician-like black man is any more patronising than the typical tea-sipping, mannered PM or Thatcher-esque female PM with balls of steel we usually see portrayed as premiere.

As for Captain Zac, considering he was being played by Shaun Parkes who had previously starred as David Tennant's 'companion' in Casanova (an RTD production) I couldn't imagine him playing anything other than a leading role in an inevitable guest appearance. Playing a character who, by default, is of course going to be of afro-caribbean extraction.

Not that racial profiling would be the greatest of faults in a series chock-full of them. Still, here's hoping for a new direction. Otherwise, I don't think we'll even reach a fifth season. If accomodating fans simply hungry for more Who are already getting bored, how can RTD hope to maintain the attention of the ADD masses?

As for a black Doctor, well, I'd be more upset if we had to put up with a Time Lord who wasn't even nominally British. Now, Chiwetel Ejiofor - the Operative from Serenity - would be a good Doctor.

Not that I don't think we're due an older actor captaining the TARDIS; If there's any bias at all in RTD's New Who I'd think that it'd be safe to say it was ageism. How many strong elderly characters have we seen in either of the new series?

EDIT: Bugger. Sorry for the double post.

Martin Wykes said...

Andrew Rilstone said...

"I don't think any element of any story would have been any different if Mickey had been white and Rose had been black, or if they had both been black, or if they had both been white. That is why diversity quotas for dramas are a silly idea."

I don't think diversity quotas for dramas are intended to make any element of the story different. They're not about trying to turn every story into a race relations story.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Is it true that people only enjoy TV shows if some of the main characters look like them? Will a person with dark coloured skin be unable to enjoy 'Robin Hood' unless someone invents an Afro-Saxon outlaw? "

I also don't think diversity quotas are anything to do with giving Black and Ethnic Minority viewers someone to identify with. The idea of needing someone who looks like oneself for identification purposes is rather a white male middle-class thing. Everyone else is used to identifying with someone who doesn't look like themselves or enjoying something as an ensemble piece without the need for specific identification.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Maybe a hypersensitive person could have said that it was a mistake that at the end of the first episode, Mickey was (arguably) represented as ape-like. But I'm inclined to say that we've been through racism and come out the other side and that although this is the kind of joke which could have been made in such a way as to be very offensive indeed, it wasn't meant in that way, so no-one took it in that way."

We're getting closer to it here. The main discrimination problem nowadays is one of roles. Certainly racism has changed in the last thirty years. The idea that black people should be sent to some sort of foreign homeland has lost a lot of the currency it had when I was a kid. But we're still seeing major problems with the penetration of people from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds into senior levels of management, the professions, positions of power and so on.

One theory is simply that people end up in stereotypical positions, both because that's what they apply for and that's what others will appoint them to. When I worked in recruitment I found employers usually wanted to replace a departed employee with someone who looked identical, while jobseekers only wanted to do a job like the one they'd previously done.

In that context it's important to stress the idea that black people can be judges, prime ministers, architects and so on. Equally it's important to stress that street sweepers in poor parts of London can be white.

Hence the idea of diversity quotas in drama. It's nothing to do with intrinsic appreciation of the drama. It's a piece of social engineering, rather like affirmative action. The motivation is political, not artistic. And that's the context in which I though casting a black actor as Mickey-the-Idiot was a bit of a disaster.

Gavin Burrows said...

Camp:

As the whole premise of Dr. Who is basically pretty silly, some degree of camp is an essential ingredient. The scriptwriters have to show the absurdity has occurred to them before it did to us, otherwise we’ll be laughing at them instead of with them. But there’s such a thing as too much camp. Something like Dr. Who has to be simultaneously self-awarely camp and serious about its convictions. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but I don’t want to eat very many spoonfuls of sugar on their own, thanks very much.

Personally I loved the camp-in-both-senses “oh-get-her” Daleks vs Cybermen argument. But we also need something more substantial in there as well like the ‘death’ of Rose. (Personally I’m more happy with her symbolic death than you. When the series starts she only wants a family life with her Mother and Father. This is impossible, her father’s dead. By the series’ end she’s got what she always wanted, but it’s no longer what she wanted. The New Rose who slays Emperor Daleks has ‘died’.)

Besides, it’s not campness that’s the problem with Davis’ writing for me so much as cleverness. Like Tarantino and so many other favoured screenwriters nowadays, he’s trying to write frothy, bubbly dialogue that’s always trying to remind you how clever it is. Personally I like dialogue that sounds like… um… the way people talk. George Orwell once said good writing should be like a windowpane, and if that’s true for anything it should surely be true for dialogue. But then that’s not very New Labour, is it?

Sci-fi:

Good point well put about internal logic. It doesn’t matter if the internal logic is stupid, so long as it’s relentlessly stupid. If one character says the banana is a raygun, the character is mad. If every character says the banana is a raygun, the banana is a raygun.

And of course gothic stories are also often enlightenment stories. The gothic wasn’t even a genre until well after the enlightenment. At first the demon seems strange and scary and unknowable. But once we work out the motivations and the operations of the demon, we often have the key to defeat them.

You could add it to the long list of things we’re blaming on the single episode format, yesterday. But while I’d take away lots of points for poor internal logic I’d add even more points for the series being more about the characters than the sci-fi elements. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

Race:

Science fiction has a poor record on race, doesn’t it? But then it also has a poor record on class. In the gleaming future all the manual jobs will be done by robots, with no need of those ignorant plebs hanging around and keeping coal in their holodecks. Teutonic fantasies like Star Wars similarly have little need for such folks. Exceptions like Alien stuck out in my mind at the time.

Michael Hanretty said...
As for a black Doctor, well, I'd be more upset if we had to put up with a Time Lord who wasn't even nominally British.

This may well leave us sounding like the UKIP branch of Who fandom but… yep.

Phil Masters said...
But if the Doctor loved Rose, what the hell was he feeling for Madame de Pompadour? Suddenly, he's just an emotionally incompetent two-timer.

Sexual love isn’t the only form of love, surely? I know plenty of women I love without wanting to get jiggy with, I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true for you. (Other readers please reverse genders here as necessary.) The old Doctor had a father/ grandfatherly love for his companions. Admittedly it’s more complicated now. The are they? aren’t they? thing has been a staple of many a long-running series. It works because unlike films or novels TV shows don’t have just one closed narrative, and work better creating suggestions in our minds that live on between episodes.

But the are they? aren’t they? thing can work in different ways. With Steed and Mrs. Peel they knew whether they fancied each other or not, but just couldn’t be bothered to tell us. With Mulder and Scully we knew they fancied each other, but trapped as viewers we had no way of telling them. Dr Who has a less defined rule. They’d be best of saying anything between the Doctor and Rose is pure friendship and anything else a product of our dirty minds, despite their frequent innuendo. Whether they are always saying that is another matter. I think it may have been a mistake to allude back to Girl in the Fireplace like they did, comparing Rose to someone the Doctor definitely did fancy.

I also didn’t like the way the Who fandom episode presented coupling up as a cure for all your ills. Shouldn’t Dr Who be suggesting going on a giant space adventure was a cure for all your ills? (I actually don’t mean this as facetiously as I sound.)

Martin Wykes said...

Gavin Burrows said...

This [wanting the Doctor to be British] may well leave us sounding like the UKIP branch of Who fandom but… yep

I guess nationality is the schtick that provides part of the character to a lot of shows. If Star Trek had been British it would probably have been "The Navy Lark" in space...

Brendan Moody said...

Bluetack Mouse:
"So can Dr Who be about well writen stories? Or is it going to be The Fast Show of SF - a bunch of one liners with more holes than a tea bag?"

Setting aside whether Doctor Who has any less internal logic than it ever did, there are different sorts of "well-written." Designing a plot that fanboys can't pick apart? Aside from being impossible, it's far from the only way to do 'good' writing.

Gavin Burrows:
"By the series’ end she’s got what she always wanted, but it’s no longer what she wanted."

Yeah. It's because of this that I'm OK with the cheat (er, "dramatic device") of Rose's death and the borderline schmaltz goodby scene. She's got both parents, a boyfriend who's better than he ever was, and a job investigating alien tech- and none of it matters, because she's not travelling.

"I also didn’t like the way the Who fandom episode presented coupling up as a cure for all your ills. Shouldn’t Dr Who be suggesting going on a giant space adventure was a cure for all your ills?"

I don't think it did suggest the former, really. Mr Skinner and Bridget didn't end well, and Elton was still a bit bleak at the end. And the final "so much madder/darker/better" bit is about space adventures and all. I'd say the point is more that you need both space adventures and significant others (whether sexual or not) to cure your ills.

Gavin Burrows said...

Martin Wykes said:

I guess nationality is the schtick that provides part of the character to a lot of shows. If Star Trek had been British it would probably have been "The Navy Lark" in space...

I prefer to think of Stark Trek as Dad’s Army in Space. (The old Star Trek, anyway. The new Star Trek I prefer not to think of at all.)

Brendan Moody said...

It's because of this that I'm OK with the cheat (er, "dramatic device") of Rose's death and the borderline schmaltz goodby scene. She's got both parents, a boyfriend who's better than he ever was, and a job investigating alien tech- and none of it matters, because she's not travelling.

Yeah. It’s like the Hole song: “When they get what they want, they never want it again…”

"I also didn’t like the way the Who fandom episode presented coupling up as a cure for all your ills. Shouldn’t Dr Who be suggesting going on a giant space adventure was a cure for all your ills?"

I don't think it did suggest the former, really. Mr Skinner and Bridget didn't end well, and Elton was still a bit bleak at the end. And the final "so much madder/darker/better" bit is about space adventures and all. I'd say the point is more that you need both space adventures and significant others (whether sexual or not) to cure your ills.


Oh come on! The former didn’t end well coz they got eaten by the monster. And the Elton plotline even had the better-off-with-the-girl-next-door plotline, albeit with Rose’s mum standing in for the torrid affair. And even then they have to cheat by making the girl next door so cute (in a geek chic sort of a way). Maybe I’m just sick of the way every single film and TV show has to present coupling up as a cure for all our ills.

TARDISManiac said...

Ironically,when you mentioned 'Queer As Folk'-you said that you couldn't remember who had written it,but,I know for a fact that....Russel.T.Davies wrote it!!!!!!!!!

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's like goldy and silvery, only it's made of iron.

Tom R said...

"Halfway through the second series of new-century Doctor Who, and it’s looking dicey. The problem became clear to me in episode five, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as the relaunched 1970s arch-villains stamped in their silver moon-boots across the stately home’s front lawn. Fundamentally, they just aren’t Daleks, are they? The first series, the one that was on last year, had Daleks, hordes of them, and what a delight they were: gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them. I wasn’t aware I had missed them until, suddenly, they were back. And back, too, was that sound made when the Doctor is arriving or departing, the scraping, groaning contractions of the Tardis – so wonderful, warm yet terrifying, the sound of childbirth, I always think, as heard by the baby.

When I was young, though – I dimly remember – the Cybermen did seem quite scary, with their blank, square faces and cruel, insatiable appetites for human whatever-it-was. But actually, most of that mystery came not from their appearance, but from their name. Back then, no one really knew what ‘cyber’ meant, though we sensed a sinister power: it was always clear that it meant something geared at some point to take over. This sense of awful potency lasted pretty much through the 1980s, powering the gorgeous prescience and horror of William Gibson’s 'Neuromancer' novels, only to peter out, pretty much, by the mid-1990s, as the dull commercial reality – the real ‘consensual hallucination’, to repurpose Gibson’s phrase – of internet shopping kicked in..."


- Jenny Turner, "Across the Tellyverse," 28(12) London Review of Books (22 June 2006)

Mike Taylor said...

Andrew, I rather think TARDISManiac may have out-ironied you. !!!!!