Monday, October 13, 2014

Those Who Walk Away

Q:  How do you know when someone doesn't own a television set?

A: They tell you.

Some time ago I achieved a point of serenity. Doctor Who exists. Doctor Who will carry on existing. I will carry on watching it. I will quite possibly carry on having opinions about it. But I am opting out of the continual existential crisis which Doctor Who fans seem to revel in. 

(Noises off: "Not all fans".) 

I have never been made to feel physically sick by a film or a TV programme. Well, unless you include that J.J Abrams film that we will not refer to by name. Or the first Mummy. And that Goodness Gracious Me Holy Communion skit. And things which are actually intended to make you feel sick, I suppose, in which case we are back to Dekalog. I have hardly ever been made to feel physically sick by a film or a TV programme. Online discussions about Doctor Who get overheated, is what I'm saying.

I like Star Trek: both the real series and the follow up; liked it enough that the abomination did genuinely make feel quite angry. But I have never got around to seeing Voyager. I probably will, one of these days. I liked Enterprise quite a lot, although I thought it missed a trick. (I wish it had been a prequel, back in the days when men were real Kirks and the universe was being explored for the first time, instead of a retread of the previous four iterations with slightly different scenery.)

I like Star Wars and I have watched Clone Wars right through. My friend Jon was appalled by it in much the same way I was appalled by the abomination. He thought it was children's TV characters in Star War costumes. I think that it's probably the closest we've had to what George Lucas really wanted Star Wars to be all along. Wars and adventures and galactic politics. The prequels (which, it is to be remembered, were Not That Good but Not Nearly As Bad As People Say) got hijacked by the Joseph Campbell back story and the need to seed it with Easter Eggs for hyperfans. And a slight intoxication about being almost the first person to be able to use CGI special effects, resulting in a screen that was much too full of stuff. And Jar Jar Binks. In the cartoon series, no-one is forcing Anakin to be the Monomyth or pulling his strings to get him to the big scene where he turns into Darth Vader. He just hangs around being a cynical good guy, which is what he always should have been. I admit that some episodes feel like rejected scripts for Thundercats; but quite often you you find yourself thinking "Yes; if they used more or less that script for the movie prequels, we'd all be much better disposed towards them." (This wouldn't alter my belief that the prequels were an inherently bad idea, mind you.)

I still need to watch the final season of Battlestar Galactica. I liked Serenity but never watched Firefly, or possibly vice versa — the TV series but not the movie. Saw all of the Marvel Comics movies, but never got around to SHIELD. Missed Green Lantern. Loved Buffy, Angel passed me by. Expect to give Gotham a look. Have an unopened Smallville boxed set which I feel vaguely guilty about. 

It's not that big a deal, is it. No-one can watch everything. 

Doctor Who has become a religion, and not in a good sense. It is, certainly, a story which is important to lots of people, which binds them together as a group, and around which they have created a network of rituals, anniversaries, icons, symbols and relics. But it also seems to generate schisms and factions and excommunications and list of proscribed texts. Not watching, Doctor Who is a complicated existential statement, on a level with Not Voting or Not Going To Mass. [*] Everything is a complicated existential statement nowadays. The big question before going to see a movie is not "does it look fun" but "is this director the kind of person that I would want to give my money to?" (Answer: He doesn't care.) 

You may remember that a little while ago I was taken aback by a comment that someone made on a little article I wrote some time ago on comic books. My little suggestion (which I don't think anybody had made before) was that while Jack Kirby unquestionably drew the pictures, Stan Lee certainly wrote the words, and writing words was certainly one of things which Stan Lee did really well. This was taken by the commentator as being a deeply personal attack on Jack Kirby, on artists in general, and on the commentator himself. My essay was hateful and full bile. A defense of Lee -- however limited -- is automatically percieved as a personal attack on everyone who admires Kirby's artwork.

Some years ago, when Salman Rushdie was still in immediate physical danger due to having said some arguably intemperate things in an arguably not-very-good-novel (which, I am existentially proud to say, I have read, although I have still never existentially seen Life of Brian) a moderate commentator in, I think, the Times Literary supplement said that when someone insults the Prophet, many Muslims genuinely do feel that they have personally been insulted, in the same way that you would feel personally insulted if I insulted your mother. I think that this probably true and probably understandable with respect to a religious figure, but way out of proportion when what we are talking about is a dead comic book artist, even a good one. No-one has so far been sentenced to death for taking sides in the Kirby Kontroversy.

The other day, someone made a comment about my collection of Whovian essays, The Viewer's Tale, still available from all the usual suppliers. It claimed that I was one of those embittered, hate-filled Doctor Who fans who despised the new show on general principles. I thought that the point of my book was that I had an up-and-down relationship with the new series, liking some parts quite a lot and others not so much. But for people who have over-invested in the series, to insufficiently praise any aspect of it is to irrationally hate the whole. I do not claim to be a free speech martyr of the same order of Salman Rusdie, although I like to think that my prose style is sometimes almost as impenetrable.

We're all equally to blame over this; overqualified Who bloggers more than most. We've all taken a moderately entertaining TV show and turned it into a colossal waste of time. 


An article on an Australian news website called "Junkee" argues that 

A: For most people, there comes a point, often around their 17th birthday, when Doctor Who stopped being the series they grew up with. 

B: What this really means is that the series has changed — it's different from the what it was when they were kids.  

C: But Doctor Who has always changed. Things we now take for granted — regeneration, Time Lords, UNIT, etc — were at one time radical new departures. 

D: Who commentators on the internet are unaware of this, or else they have forgotten about it. 

E:  So all negative criticism of Who is really just people moaning about change, and can therefore be disregarded.

I am not saying that there is nothing to this. I think that it is a problem that fans of Doctor Who (and the programme itself, if the truth be know) are constantly measuring New Who against the Original Series. It only took half a series for Star Trek: The Next Generation to become a thing in itself. We stopped saying that the bald guy was a substitute for Kirk and a the white faced guy was a stand-in for Spock and accepted that this was what Star Trek was from now on. Strikingly, it was only when the new series was very secure and self-confident that it started directly referencing the old one. 

So, some people have been existentially offended because the new title sequence with the watches doesn't reflect the strangeness that the original one had in 1963. Well, no, I don't suppose it does. (Nothing in 2014 feels as strange as everything felt in 1963. Doctor Who played constantly with what a strange new thing television is; but then, so did Blue Peter.) I am far from convinced that eight years into a new series and 24 years since the old one was canceled that the title sequence of the old series is the metric by which we should be addressing the new one. It's an animation which reflects something of what Doctor Who is about. I think it's a shame that the most interesting thing in the fan animation that it was based on (the camera zooming into the Doctor's pocket watch) is the one thing that Moffat's version has left out. But ho, hum. If you don't like it, they'll be another one along in a minute. 

Junkee's facts are a bit confused. He is correct to say that Doctor Who has always been making changes to the canon. But here is his example: 

"Or how about when the Second Doctor revealed he was a Time Lord, and was put on trial for stealing the TARDIS? That nugget was revealed at the end of the show’s sixth season. We think of it as something that’s always been — but imagine if Buffy had suddenly revealed at the end of season six that she was from the planet Slayos"

Well, hang on a moment. What actually happened was something like this: 

Unearthly Child: Susan says that she comes from "another world, another time":

Dead Planet: Doctor talks about "his own people" 

Sensorites: Susan describes her home world.

Meddling Monk:  Doctor meets another member of his race, who has his own TARDIS.

Massacre:  Doctor talks of going back to his own people ("but I can't")

Tenth Planet: Doctor changes his physical form

Tomb of the Cybermen:  Doctors claims to be 450 years old

War Games:  Doctor's own people revealed to be called Time Lords. 

Spearhead From Space: Doctor said to have two hearts

Time Warrior: Doctor's home planet said to be called Gallifrey

Planet of the Spiders: Doctor's Change in physical form said to be called Regeneration

So what we had was an incremental change, over a decade, from "The Doctor may be from the far future, or he may be an alien, or maybe he has lost his memory and doesn't know" to "The Doctor comes from a planet called Gallifrey." It is simply false to say that the War Games was a radical change on a par with Buffy suddenly becoming an alien. It only introduced two new pieces of information: the Doctor's people were called Time Lords, and the Doctor ran away from home because he was bored.

Oh, and it is possible to exaggerate the state of flux that the old series was in. For the last 19 years of the series, there were only 4 producers (Letts, Hinchcliffe, Williams, and Turner); although it managed to go through 5 between 1963 and 1970. But that's still only 9, not the "dozens" that Junkee alleges. 

Some of us think that some of the "changes" that are going on in Doctor Who right now are not incremental changes in the spirit of the "tradition". Some of us think that they are radical changes which are not in the spirit of what has gradually emerged over half a century.

It's like being the custodian of an ancient cathedral. The cathedral has always been growing and changing. The Dean can point you to the Anglo Saxon bit, the Medieval bit, the Victorian bit and the bit that was bombed in the war. When a storm or a vandal destroys the stained glass window representing St Barbara, patron saint of coal miners, you might very well decide to replace it with a new one (in the Modern style) representing St Isidore, patron saint of computer programmers. Otherwise what you have is not a cathedral, but a pastiche of a cathedral. But pulling down the whole north transept and replacing it with a media center is a different proposition. A lot of people might say that you have changed the cathedral beyond recognition; that it is no longer a cathedral.

I am not saying that the revelation that the Doctor became a superhero because Mary Poppins (an English teacher with no apparent interest in English) skipped back in time and gave him a pep talk when he was having a Time Sulk changes Doctor Who beyond all recognition. I don't really think I understand what that scene, or that episode, was about well enough to formulate an opinion. But merely showing us Kid Doctor appears to me to represent a diminution of the character. At various times the Doctor has been Special just because he's the one Time Lord who wonders around in space and time (no-one special in his own people, but very special from the point of view of anyone else) and Special because he is something significant in Time Lord history, the reincarnation of a legendary Super Time Lord; or (when Paul Cornell had been reading too much Neil Gaiman, Times Champion.) The idea that he is "special" because someone put their hand on his shoulders and talked motivational poster shit at him seems...less interesting. Conversely, the decision back in series 1 to blow up Gallifrey seemed to be a distinct improvement. A Doctor who is "last of the Time Lords" is arguably more interesting than one who is "One of a number of renegade Time Lords". No one is objecting to change: but some of us don't think that all change is automatically improvement.

Junkee's most egregious error is his implication that people who are critical of New Who aren't aware that there is a nostalgic element to our enjoyment of the show; that if you didn't love Doctor Who when you were a child you probably will never love it at all; that for everyone there is a period called "my Doctor Who" and "my Doctor"; that the Golden Age of Doctor Who was "about fourteen". Of course we are aware of this. Sometimes it feels as if it's the only thing we are aware of.

"Listen" annoyed me. I wasn't clever enough to spot all the problems with "Kill the Moon" that everyone else spotted. But it really is still just a TV programme. Nothing in it could possibly make me physically sick. And nothing in it could possibly be bad enough to make me stop watching in. On the other hand, if you stopped watching it for a bit, that's not a big deal either. I am not sure why you are telling me. But then again, since you have told me, I am not sure why you think I care.

But I do. Obviously. It really does feel as if you've announced that you are getting a divorce, or disfellowshipping yourself, or supporting a different football club.

Which is a problem.

[*] I resisted the temptation to make that a Bryson List, as "Not Voting, Not Going To Mass or Switching Off The Great British Bake Off."


Louise H said...

I mentioned something about Dr Who on Livejournal the other day, and a friend from the US said that she'd never seen any of the show at all, but since the producers insisted on only having white male Doctors she knew that it was homphobic, sexist and racist.

I stared at this for quite a while over the next couple of days, and every so often I'd type something and then delete it again. In the end I just left it because I couldn't think of any meaningful conversation we could have at that point. (And that was before the whole pro-life chicken debate.)

I thought Kill the Moon was awful, but all TV shows have awful episodes occasionally. (Even my beloved Babylon 5.) We used to say, yes, that was a bloody awful analogy, that was clumsily done, that casting was dreadfully stereotypical. Now the question for discussion seems to be not whether that was a Good Episode or a Bad Episode, or even whether it is a Good Show or a Bad Show but whether it demonstrates that Steven Moffat is a Good Person or a Bad Person. Which, to be honest, I don't much care about one way or another.

Gavin Burrows said...

I have given up talking about 'Doctor Who' as well. I am not hateful, I am just uninterested. Shall we not talk about it together?

SK said...

It does often seem that on certain websites the actual quality of the episodes is irrelevant, or at least of distant secondary importance behind whether they can be interpreted as supporting the commentator's politics strongly enough, or not.

SK said...

(Or as someone (I forget who) once said, 'There is no such thing as a good or bad episode of Doctor Who. Episodes of Doctor Who are either moral or immoral, and that is all.')

Mike Taylor said...

"I have given up talking about 'Doctor Who' as well. I am not hateful, I am just uninterested. Shall we not talk about it together?"

Surprisingly (to me), the evidence is that I too, despite having written a whole book about the Eleventh Doctor, seem to have given up writing about Doctor Who as well. (Kill the Moon is the only series-8 episode I've written about, and that was more a howl of rage than an actual analysis).

Yet here we all are, writing about how we're not writing about Doctor Who.

I'm sure that tells us something very profound.

Gavin Burrows said...

I fear we are in danger of confusing quite separate things here.
There are quite definitely fans who take a hysteric, personalised reaction to their favourite shows. They do not say, for example, “I didn’t think ‘Kill the Moon’ was a very good episode. If things don’t pick up, I might start watching the other side. Or possibly even leave the house.” Instead they say things like “’Kill The Moon’ was a calculated personal assault on myself and my brethren. Clearly, the scriptwriter has got it in for me. But I shall have my revenge via the internet. That’ll show him, eh?”
There are also those who take an interest in the gestation/production history of a work. Which is reasonable enough as a thing in itself. You might be interested to read that, for example, Tolkien was once caught up in a traffic jam on the Watford bypass, started imagining the other cars as confining trees and that is where Mirkwood came from. But there seems a general tendency these days to take this all too far, to the point where fiction becomes merely displaced autobiography. Whereupon ‘Lord of the Rings’ is made into a novel that’s really about traffic snarl-ups on the Watford bypass, what fiction actually is lies all forgotten and sanity is left waving hopefully to us from across a distance.
And when these two things combine we are left with a kind of compound absurdity. Suddenly, if ‘Doctor Who’ hasn’t been as good lately its because Moffat is a bad, bad man and we are all inside his wicked plot and he probably tortures puppies in his spare time.
All the above problems could of course be solved by people getting out more.
But there’s also an approach where fiction is taken as a cultural artefact and as such a barometer of society. Here, the fact that some bugger sat down at a laptop and wrote ‘Kill The Moon’ is considered less important than the fact that it was broadcast to the nation on a prime Saturday slot. (Which would make it particularly appealing to me were I the bloke who had written ‘Kill the Moon’.) From this perspective, we might want to say something like “note that the man buggers off and leaves the decision to three women. But really its him who actually has all the knowledge and empowerment to make that decision, and as it turns out its pretty much him who makes it in the end. Further evidence we live in a society which is patriarchal while making a big show of pretending not to.” (On the other hand, we might want to say something less banal. It’s just an example.) The guy who sat down at the laptop might or might not cheat on his girlfriend or still take his laundry home to his Mum. But that’s not particularly important to this group because their focus is so much wider.
This third approach is, generally speaking, not one our inestimable host chooses to pursue very much. Which is fair enough, and he is better off doing what he does rather than trying to do something he doesn’t. But other people do pursue this who are (to coin a phrase) not silly.

Critics of this third approach tend to make out it is just someone harrumphing that their particular political views have not been reflected back at them from a popular TV show, and so try to tar them with the brush of Group One. “I am an anarcho-syndicalist. But when I sat down to watch 'Kill the Moon', at no point did it depict the workers taking over the industries in which they work. I take this as a personal insult, and clearly Moffat is my nemesis. David Cameron probably told him to write it that way.” This is not what Group Three are saying. To pretend they are as silly as Group One is itself as silly as Group One.

(Disclaimer: I made the bit up about Mirkwood and the Watford bypass. But I suppose I could go and update Tolkien's Wikipedia page now to try and fool you.)

SK said...

But what's really hilarious is when they divide into two factions, each ostensibly on the same side, but one of which thinks a given episode supports their cause while another thinks the same episode reinforces the reactionary forces they have devoted their (online) lives to fighting.

We might call them the Gallifreyan People's Front and the People's Front of Gallifrey.

There's only one thing to do then, of course: grab the popcorn and sit right back.

Anonymous said...

> "Strikingly, it was only when the new series was very secure and self-confident that it started directly referencing the old one"

Point of order, chair, but the very second story in TNG "The Naked Now" was a direct hommage to/ pastiche of [pick one] the Original Series' "Naked Time". George Takei was quite scathing about it in his autobiography, "To The Stars". Muttered something about how it was like watching children playing dress-up in their parents' clothes.
- Tom R