Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (3)


The third approach has a lot in common with the second. It's also inclined to make the concept of "canon" incredibly wobbly, if not actually non-existent. It doesn't feel that party loyalty requires it to pretend that Doctor Who was good even when it quite obviously wasn't. It takes the line that the story on the back of the Nestles Chocolate Bars is as much a part of Doctor Who as anything which ever appeared on TV -- or that it can be if you want it to be. 

But while it is certainly interested in ephemera and memorabilia, it isn't that interested in putting Doctor Who in a particular historical or biographical context. You can read whole articles written from this perspective without finding out how old the writer was when they first saw Genesis of the Daleks, or how much they disliked their P.E teacher. It regards Doctor Who as a text -- but it thinks that that text is potentially very large and (therefore) very contradictory. What you do with the text is "read" it, appreciate it, and, if you wish, interpret it. The Third Approach is interested in seeing how the Lyons Maid Dalek Death Ray Lolly wrappers fit into, or can be fitted into, the Total Text of Doctor Who: it is not particularly interested in how you felt when you first discovered them in the freezer cabinet in the long drought of 1976. The Daleks were created by a crippled fascist called Davros and also by a smurf named Yarvelling [1]: that contradiction is a fact about the text, in the same way that "it used to be in black and white and then it went to colour" are facts about it. What you do with it is up to you. But you shouldn't (according to this theory) use the concept of canon to privilege one over the other or to falsify a unity and consistency which simply isn't there.[2]

The Second Approach asked "What does Doctor Who mean to me?" The Third one asks "What does Doctor Who mean?"  

This is of course the furrow that Andrew Hickey is plowing so cleverly, both in his Mindless Ones columns and his own blog. They are are full of interesting -- if highly tendentious -- ways of reading the actual text of Doctor Who. In his inspired riff on Logopolis he notes that Adric -- greedy for food, awkward around girls, obsessed with maths and computers, far too pleased with himself -- could have been a deliberate parody of a Doctor Who fan, and is, not un-coincidentally, the character Doctor Who fans most universally hate. That never occurred when I first saw the Adric stories; it hadn't occurred to me in the thirty years since; I very much doubt that it was consciously in John Nathan-Turner's mind when he dreamed up Adric; but now the observation has been made, it can't be un-made. It is obviously, compellingly true.

But this approach also has a drawbridge. "Textual interpretation" is arguably quite a strange thing to be doing to what is, when all is said and done, a children's TV adventure serial. When we wonder if "The Watcher" who is watching the Doctor in Logopolis might possibly represent us, the person who is watching the Doctor on the TV (which would mean that we, the viewers, were really the Doctor all the time) we are doing something to Doctor Who which it would never have occurred to us to do to Doctor Who if we had not already put Doctor Who up on the kind of pedestal where that's the kind of thing that it occurs to us to do to it.

And that's what "canonization" means, isn't it? Putting a book, or a person, on a pedestal? It originally referred to the canon of Holy Scripture. [3] No-one would argue about whether the book of Maccabees was, or was not, Scripture if they didn't already think that there was such a thing as Scripture for it to be -- a special kind of book that you treat in a special kind of way. We may admire the Screwtape Letters very much -- more than we admire the Epistle to Jude, if we are perfectly honest. But we don't think that it would be appropriate to pick a particular sentence from Screwtape as Collect of the Day or use it as the starting point of a sermon or set it to music or use it liturgically or swing censers of incense in front of. Neither do we, on the whole, write articles about the internal continuity of Rentaghost. Even though  we loved Rentaghost at exactly the same moment we first loved Doctor Who. 

Some clergymen treat the Bible as (at best) as a collection of raw material to do exegeses of; and at worst, a convenient source of sermon illustrations. Some academics regard novels primarily as things to fall out with other academics over. And if we aren't careful, the whole process of "being Doctor Who fans" can make Doctor Who, the television programme invisible. 

Almost the most interesting thing about Andrew's "Fifty Stories for Fifty Years" series is the way he treated The Iron Legion [4] and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters [5] as part of the Total Thing Which Is Doctor Who. But by opening up the canon in this way, he is acknowledging that there is such a thing as canonicity. He reads The Iron Legion in a way in which it would not occur to us to read Beryl the Peril or Winker Watson [6].

"What if everything is canonical?" is a perfectly good question. But it's a slightly different question to  "What if nothing is?" 

What if the stories on the backs of the Sugar Puffs packets are just as much a part of the Doctor Who canon as the Dalek Masterplan?

What if doing a close analysis of a forty-seven year old television programme (of which no copies exist) is just as silly as doing a close analysis of the backs of old cereal boxes?

continues....





[1] In the TV Century 21 Comic Strip...but you knew that.



[2] I think that an explanation along the lines of: "They both happened, but in alternate time lines" is just as much a smoothing over as "Davros rediscovered Yarvelling's long lost blueprints" or "TV Century 21 is NOT CANON and DOESN'T COUNT." My preferred answer (to get ahead of myself) is "It doesn't matter that they contradict each other, because neither of them 'really happened': they are both stories."

[3] Andrew Hickey has helpfully reminded us that we owe the word's application to popular culture to a spoof article in which a clergyman applied the methods of Historical Jesus Scholarship and source criticism to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

[4] A comic strip in "Doctor Who Weekly". You knew that as well.

[5] The novelisation of "The Silurians". 



[6] Comic strips in the Beano. 

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this series -- lots to chew over.

    I would place myself firmly in Camp 3.

    "Textual interpretation" is arguably quite a strange thing to be doing to what is, when all is said and done, a children's TV adventure serial [...] we are doing something to Doctor Who which it would never have occurred to us to do to Doctor Who if we had not already put Doctor Who up on the kind of pedestal where that's the kind of thing that it occurs to us to do to it.

    I'm not quite sure what you're getting at here. Are you saying that it was a purely arbitrary decision that we as a community made somewhere along the line, that we would apply this sort of analysis to Doctor Who but not to, say, Grange Hill?

    If you are, then I'd have to disagree. There are plenty of objective reasons, intrinsic to the program itself, why it's risen to this dubious honour. Sheer longevity is one. Another is that it actually does have an astonishing degree of consistency for a programme that's been written by sixty different writers over fifty years in a dozen or more styles for at least three completely different audiences. Another is that it takes itself seriously enough to sustain some criticism -- it's mercifully low on the sort of self-referential fourth-wall-breaking that we all thought was terribly clever in the lower sixth. Outside of the few late RTD/Tennant episodes, it always invites us to take the jeopardy at face value.

    In short, its longevity, consistency and (in the appropriate sense) seriousness lend it enough mass to approach critically. (You could say it has attained Critical Mass if you were in the mood for physics puns.)

    My preferred answer (to get ahead of myself) is "It doesn't matter that they contradict each other, because neither of them 'really happened': they are both stories."

    I don't think that is remotely good enough (and I am not 100% sure that you do, either, really). If you accept both versions as equally valid, or canonical if you prefer, then you are putting yourself in a position where you don't know what your story foundations are. We rightly complain when a problem is resolved by some new element parachuted in at the last minute. That is inevitable if you start from the assumption that you don't know or care what is and isn't included in your fictional universe.

    if you want to be all relativistic about what is and isn't canonical, then I'd be prepared to go this far with you: we could agree that nothing is fundamentally canonical or uncanonical; but that in the context of a given fiction, any given other piece is canon or uncanon for that context. So when I am watching Doctor Who on TV, Davros's invention of Daleks is canon and Yarvelling's is not. In that content I am within my rights to assume that a Dalek threat will not be resolved by Yarvelling turning up and ordering them to halt the attack. But if I'm reading a comic strip, the opposite pertains.

    Finally:

    "What if everything is canonical?" is a perfectly good question. But it's a slightly different question to "What if nothing is?"

    I'm not sure I see the distinction. If everything is (equally) canonical, then there is no in/out distinction, is there? As Dash (or is it Syndrome) remarks, if everyone is special, that means no-one is.

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  2. I am in none of the three camps, as I suspect most people are not. Any writing that I do about Doctor Who is fairly straightforward criticism. If I were to adopt any of the three camps, I certainly prefer the second or third to the first. However, I am almost completely uninterested in Doctor Who which has not appeared on television, so the second camp is the most attractive to me of the three. (And I do occasionally put my affection for the William Hartnell era of the program in biographical context.)

    It seems to me that the first kind of writing is the sort any object of adulation can attract. The second kind of writing is the sort that any long-running object of adulation can attract (Mr. Rilstone himself talked about this with Cerebus). The third kind of writing is the sort that any object of adulation which exists in multiple media can attract (Star Wars is a prominent example).

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  3. I'm not sure the distinction between types two and three is all that firm. The About Time books, for example, cross that line every few paragraphs, as does TARDIS Eruditorum. In my own case, the single biggest influence on any of my critical writing for the last few years has been Who Sent The Sentinels, actually.

    I think the reason I take approach three rather than two is because I experienced nearly all of Doctor Who retrospectively. I was a small child in the 80s, and so where the people roughly ten years older than me have visceral childhood memories of Sea Devils coming up from the ocean, giant maggots, giant robots and K9, my strongest childhood memories of the show are from roughly The Five Doctors through The Happiness Patrol. I remember Daleks flying for the first time on my tenth birthday, but other than that my strongest childhood memories of the programme are of Trial Of A Timelord, of being very, very excited by all the continuity references in Attack Of The Cybermen, and of reading Target novels.

    But then I didn't really experience any earlier Who until about 2001, and didn't have any 'fandom' experiences until the latter part of the last decade. So I experienced the vast bulk of the period from Hartnell through Tom Baker, McCoy's last year and a half, and the NAs, EDAs and audios, in a compressed period of about a decade. Putting them into personal context doesn't work especially well then (though in the next few essays you'll see a little more of that).

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  4. I don't think that is remotely good enough (and I am not 100% sure that you do, either, really). If you accept both versions as equally valid, or canonical if you prefer, then you are putting yourself in a position where you don't know what your story foundations are.

    Only if you think that 'story foundations' in some way means, 'what really happened, in the fictional universe which we are considering and from which we are reading reports'.

    But nothing 'really happened' in the fictional universe, because it's fictional, and we are not reading reports from it: stories are not, to steal a phrase, gossip about imaginary people.

    What you're doing is confusing 'canon' and 'continuity'. 'Canon' is deciding what stuff 'counts' for the purpose of critical analysis. It's the process that says that we consider the ice lollies and the original novels and the radio plays that like to pretend they were on television but not the stories
    twelve-year-old Jennie writes on her Live Journal where the Doctor has explicit sex with Rose, not because the lollies 'really happened' and the porn didn't, but simply because you have to stop somewhere.

    'Continuity' is making sure that if a character's eyes are brown in chapter two they are still brown in chapter twenty-two, or there's a good reason why not (like, the contact lenses hurt and the actress complained).

    But if a character's eyes change colour without a good reason, it doesn't mean that either chapter two or chapter twenty-two has to be thrown out of the novel, because otherwise we wouldn't know what the 'story foundations' of the novel were: what colour the character's eyes REALLY were. Because the character, being a character, doesn't really have eyes, or anything else.

    To be honest, I think the problem occurs when you use the phrase 'fictional universe'. There isn't a fictional universe. There is just the fiction: there is no universe behind it. Fiction is not an exercise in describing some of the events in an imaginary universe; it is an exercise in creating an experience with meaning that is about, when it comes down to it, this universe, the only real one.

    Otherwise you find yourself in the silly position of thinking that the important question is, 'What really happened in the Marabar Caves?'

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  5. "If you accept both versions as equally valid, or canonical if you prefer, then you are putting yourself in a position where you don't know what your story foundations are."

    Only if you think that 'story foundations' in some way means, 'what really happened, in the fictional universe which we are considering and from which we are reading reports'.


    Not at all. "Story foundations", at least in the sense that I intended it when I introduced the term, is a pragmatic notion encompassing what you need to make sense of a story as it's unfolding, and to make meaningful predictions about how it will develop.

    If I'm watching a Superman story, I will expect the main character to fly. If I'm watching Doctor Who, I am entitled to assume that that's one thing he won't do. So ...

    What you're doing is confusing 'canon' and 'continuity'.

    There is some justice in this accusation, I suppose. What I really care about is sufficient continuity for stories to make narrative sense. (I don't care about "continuity" in the sense of "Oh, he mentioned Androzani, like the Fifth Doctor story!").

    But canon is itself sometimes a necessary foundation for narrative continuity. To revert to the earlier example, you can't (without tying yourself in knots) have both Davros and Yarvelling be The Creator Of The Daleks. In any given story, one or other of those things is part of your story foundation. So from this perspective, the concept of canonicity is just a took for determining what your story foundation consist of.

    If we pretend that this isn't important, our self-delusion is easily unveiled. When the TARDIS towed the Stolen Earth back into its usual location, there were -- rightly -- howls of outrage. Because 45 years of continuity had established that this is not The Kind Of Thing The TARDIS Can Do. If it in fact had done something similar on the back of a Weetabix packet in 1979, I doubt the outrage would have been much less -- because all of us, actually, have a strong sense of What Counts and what doesn't. A sense of canon, if you will.

    So it's not a holy writ; but it's an important tool.

    To be honest, I think the problem occurs when you use the phrase 'fictional universe'. There isn't a fictional universe. There is just the fiction: there is no universe behind it.

    This is a problematic assertion because it varies so much between one fiction and the next. Lord of the Rings unquestionably does take place within a fictional universe. The so-called "chronicles" of Narnia absolutely do not. (They should be marketed as Tales of Narnia, which much better describes what they are.) Lewis never had the slightest idea, or interest in, what happened in Narnia in the long ages between the visits from our world. Those centuries simply didn't matter for the stories he was telling. Whereas Tolkien arguably cared more about the annals of Middle-earth than he did about about the actual story he was telling.

    Where it gets interesting is in the case of something like Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent Star Wars), which started out as a tale-of-Narnia but has gradually accumulated so much back-story that it now more closely resembles Middle-earth (in kind, not in tone). The original writers of Doctor Who doubtless never intended this; but it's futile to pretend it hasn't happened.

    I am not 100% sure what point I am trying to make here, so I will stop before I accidentally commit to one.

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