Monday, February 12, 2018

Last Best Hopes

Definition of Fan

A fan is one who regards, or affects to regard, a book, comic or TV series as a record or description of a real person or real historical events.

A fan is one who sees individual episodes or comic books primarily as sources of pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical information.

A fan is one who is more interested in whether a text is consistent from a pseudo-biographical or pseudo-historical point of view than in any literary, aesthetic or artistic merits that text might have.

You're Just Not the Man I Fell In Love With

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
The Silmarillion

It could so easily have made sense.

We could have decided from the outset that Time Lords were incorporeal intelligences. We could have said that they take on physical bodies when they need to interact with mortals; and that the form they take resembles the race they are interacting with: a human when talking to humans; a Silurian when talking to Silurians. We could have said that most Time Lords can put these bodies on and off at a whim but a few — especially the renegades — become attached to them. Of course these temporary bodies eventually wear out and need to be replaced.

This would have explained, at a stroke, why an ancient being from a fantastically sophisticated alien civilization is also a dotty English prof who likes cricket and jelly babies. It would be consistent with the First Doctor referring to his body as if it were a possession (”this old body of mine”); with the Fourth Doctor talking about “settling in” to his new body as if it were a new house; and with Romana talking about “trying on” and “wearing” new bodies as if they were clothes. It would explain why the Time Lords allowed the Second Doctor to choose his new appearance, and why the Watcher was really the Doctor all the time.

And it would deal nicely with the issue of gender. We don't know what Time Lords have in their pants, but they have the same secondary sexual characteristics as humans — breasts and beards and hips oh my. And they seem to have a very human attitude to gender presentation. The Doctor may be a bohemian and a dandy, but he wears neck-ties and shirts and cravats — never a skirt. Unless he’s in Scotland, obviously. Romana is ostentatiously feminine and Missy is positively camp. This makes quite a lot of sense if bodies have nothing to do with Time Lord's essential nature, but are merely things they choose to take on. An incorporeal intelligence isn’t masculine or feminine, any more than it is Northern or Scottish, but a particular body may happen to be one or the other. Missy’s exaggeratedly feminine clothes and the Doctor’s liking for cricket are examples of the same phenomenon: taking on a form which is more girly than a girl and more British than a Brit.

But this is not how we decided to do things. We decided that the Time Lords would be advanced human beings, with court rooms and affairs of state and harps and extremely silly hats.

My way would have made sense, and been consistent. But consistency is a straitjacket for writers. Not making sense turned out to be much more fun.

An Unwanted Opinion

My beloved Doctor Who shone on Christmas Day with an official figure of eight million viewers. I could cry that it's the end of a wonderful era, and political correctness has now ruined it forever after such a glorious swan song. No unwanted opinions please. 
Ian Levine

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the fifteenth incarnation of the Doctor. By which I mean, as the fourteenth Doctor. By which I mean, obviously, the sixteenth actor to play the Doctor on TV. Unless you count Comic Relief, in which case I mean the twenty-first.

Some former Doctor Who fans are very cross about the BBC’s decision to cast Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth actor to be regularly billed as the eponymous character in the canonical TV series. Let’s not worry too much about the word “eponymous”.

Some of these former Doctor Who fans are are just nasty little boys who don’t want gurls in their treehouse. Some of them have a much wilder, political objection. The idiot who got up an actual petition against Jodie Whittaker's casting uses a lot of easily identifiable far-right code-words: the idea of a female Doctor was forced on the BBC by the “SJW community”; the idea that the Doctor has to be male is “common sense”. He mentions in passing that there are “only two genders” suggesting that he failed his German ‘O’ Level. And he thinks the series started in 1957. He isn’t actually concerned about Doctor Who as such: he objects to the idea that the Doctor could change gender because he objects to the idea that anyone could change gender. His distaste for Jodie Whittaker is simply a distaste for trans people. He sees the casting of a female Doctor is part of a wider PC/SJW plot to destroy civilization. He is a very silly man and I don’t know why I am paying any attention to him.

However, quite a number of the Jodie denialist community are worried about something much more serious than the end of civilization. They are worried about Doctor Who continuity. 

Here is one Tony Ingham on Twitter:

It doesn't make sense. It would make the Doctor leaving Susan on Earth to be with David criminally irresponsible if the poor guy was likely to wake up one day and find she'd become a bloke! And what about Leela and Andred? How could family relationships on Gallifrey even work?

I think “How might family relationships on Gallifrey work?” is a perfectly good question. In the same way that I think “What happened to Doctor Watson’s dog?” and “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” and “Was Mary Magdalene the beloved disciple?” are perfectly good questions. It is the kind of perfectly good question that can’t possibly have an answer, but that doesn't stop someone writing a really interesting essay or a really terrible short story about it.

But what state of mind would you have to be in to start from the premise that family relationships could never work if Time Lords are gender-fluid, that no solution is possible, and that a male-female regeneration is a good and adequate reason to give up watching Doctor Who forever? The casting of Jodie Whittaker breaks the entire text: a male Fourteenth Doctor won’t repair the damage. Once we have admitted that the Doctor can be a woman, the show called Doctor Who no longer exists.

First, you have to take the decision to treat seven hundred and something episodes of a TV show as if it was a single text: to treat Dalek Invasion of Earth and Twice Upon a Time as somehow part of the same story. This kind of fan often talks as if there was a single divinely inspired text of Doctor Who in heaven, and that the script writers merely channel that text. They don’t say “In Spearhead from Space, some jobbing writer made some shit up, partly as a joke and partly as a plot device, and over the years some other jobbing writers have kept the same joke going.” They say “In Spearhead from Space it was revealed that the Doctor had two hearts.” Revealed is an interestingly religious choice of words. 

Second, you have to be more interested in the one great story made up of every single episode of Doctor Who even the ones which haven’t been written yet than in the actual episode that we are watching right now. If a 2018 story says something that makes it impossible to believe in that one great story then you either have to pretend that the new story never happened, or else you have to admit that the one big story never actually existed in the first place and quit watching Doctor Who altogether.

I grant that some texts are meant to be read that way. It’s fair to assume that something which is true in Season 1 of Game of Thrones is still true in Season 7. It is perfectly sensible to rewatch the early episodes of The Good Place in the light of what you have learned from the later ones. Stan and Jack may have been stuffing their comics full of whatever nonsense seemed fun at the time, but various Thomas’s and Gruenwald’s worked fairly hard in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the whole thing into a halfway consistent shared universe. Anyone might read Spider-Man and wonder if Uncle Ben ever met Captain America during World War 2. But it's a deeply odd way of watching Doctor Who.

Next, you have to come up with a series of answers to which there are no sensible questions, and convince yourself that they represent some kind of absolute truth. Yes, indeed, the First Doctor had a companion called Susan Foreman and yes she did indeed call the Doctor “Grandfather”. And in one particular story the Doctor left her on earth because she wanted to marry David Cameron. Years after Susan had left the series, the idea that the Doctor sometimes physically changes from an older man into a younger man was plucked out of thin air. Years after that, someone else made the idea that he was a Time Lord up out of their heads. 

I was about to type “No canonical origin for Susan has ever been established.” But I don’t really mean that. What I mean is “No-one involved in the actual TV program either knew or cared how the idea of the Time Lords, or the Time War, or Regeneration would affect Susan Foreman, because she was a minor supporting character who no longer had any relevance to Doctor Who.

The more you think about it, the odder it becomes. The invention of regeneration in 1966 retrospectively gives Susan the power to regenerate (even though she is no longer in the series); the invention of the Time Lords in 1969 retrospectively turns her into a Time Lord (even though she is no longer in the series); the casting of Jodie Whittaker in 2018 retrospectively gives her the power to regenerate as a man (even though she is no longer in the series). And this is so axiomatic that it is now impossible to continue to watch Doctor Who.

Even on its own terms, the argument is pretty feeble. Despite canonical statements to the contrary, the First Doctor is now firmly established to have literally been the first Doctor: there were no previous versions of him which we haven’t seen. It has been firmly established that he was at one time a baby, then a boy and an adolescent and then an undergraduate. When we first meet him he's an old man of 60 or 70. Susan is physically and psychologically a teenager, and will presumably become a middle aged woman and an old lady before her current body wears out. The Doctor eventually gives his age as 450, so unless some centuries have passed between Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen he is much older than he looks, in which case Susan’s present incarnation will outlive David by centuries. 

So the problem isn’t “Susan might turn into a man”; the problem is “Susan is immortal and David is mortal.” If this is an irresolvable problem then the Who-text was broken when Leela married Andred; when the Doctor revealed himself to have mixed parentage; or when he first had a dalliance with Madam de Pompadour.  Human / Time Lord pairings are what should be utterly verboten.

If nothing else, it’s a weird view of human relationships. We can somehow accept that David Cameron might see a very elderly Susan morph into a much younger person (with a radically different personality) and be completely okay with that provided she retains the same physiological sex. But if she changed into a similar person, but with a flat chest and man's Thingie rather than a lady's Etcetera than his marriage would be over. And the fact that this is a conceptual possibility means that you can't ever watch Doctor Who again. 

You don’t think its possible that a married Time Lord might have some kind of choice about their gender, do you?

This question was directly addressed in the very first thing Steven Moffat ever wrote for Doctor Who. You will recall that the the Doctor carelessly regenerates into Joanna Lumley while he is engaged to marry his companion, Emma. The Doctor is fine with the wedding going ahead, but Emma isn't; so the Doctor is equally fine with them just being friends.

"Well, never mind. We can still rattle around the universe, fighting monsters and saving planets. What could be more fun? My best friend by my side, my trusty old TARDIS and, of course, my sonic screwdriver."

And that would strike me a being the answer that any non-crazy person would come up with. Granted that Time Lords marry and are given in marriage and granted that Time Lords sometimes regenerate and granted that regeneration sometimes involves a change of twiddly bits it is perfectly obvious that a Gallifreyan marriage is “til regeneration do we part”. If Andred regenerates while Leela is still alive, or if Susan regenerates when David is still alive, then the marriage is over. Sad, of course, for the survivor, but every marriage includes the possibility that one partner might die while the other is still young.

That explains why the Doctor never talks about his own wife and children. After his first regeneration he is literally dead to them. There is probably a taboo against meeting your previous incarnation’s lover. Remember the symbiots on Deep Space Nine?.

The Third Age of Fan

I must tell you all that, rewatching Babylon 5, it touches depths that Dr Who could never come close to approaching. The fact that no new B5 is being made is the greatest crime to television drama. JM Straczynski is the greatest writer of intelligent science fantasy in history 
Ian Levine

Perhaps the most prominent Jodie denialist is semi-professional Doctor Who fan Ian Levine. Mr Levine has a complicated position in Who history. For being one of those who, in the 1980s, prevented BBC archivists from destroying the surviving black and white episodes of Doctor Who, he deserves our thanks and respect. For having been fan-adviser on Attack of the Cybermen, not so much. 

He is so cross that the next Doctor is going to be a lady that he has announced through the medium of Twitter that he is never going to watch Doctor Who again, ever, ever, ever, and that in any case Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who and in fact the best science fiction story and the best TV series that there ever was or ever could be. "Unsuppassable" was the word he used.

It isn’t quite clear whether his objection to a female Doctor is political or canonical: he says that he has no problem with strong female characters, but that the Doctors themselves can only be men; but he also describes the casting as “politically correct”. But his sudden epiphany that Babylon 5 was always better than Doctor Who, and his embracing of it as a Who substitute is both wonderfully ironic and historically inevitable. A very, very long time ago — at the time of the Paul McGann movie, I wrote:

“The post-fan aspires to the condition where the person who has read the episode guides, memorized the synopsis, and learned the character stats for the role-playing game is at no disadvantage to the person who has actually watched the programme. Content is all, execution and artistic merit is nothing. Babylon 5 is the consummation of this approach.”

If I were writing the same essay now, I would have said that the Harry Potter books do the same thing even more successfully. Doctor Who fans have to struggle to make the Who-text make sense. For many of us, the absurdity of that struggle is precisely what makes it fun. Harry Potter and Babylon 5 come with their geek-potential pre-loaded. There are no silly questions: any continuity problem which occurs to you has almost certainly occurred to J.K Rowling and J. Michael Straczynski.

Doctor Who was never a very good match to Ian Levine’s approach. Babylon 5 will suit him much better. He has his reward. And I remain thankful that he stopped that archivist from wiping the Dead Planet.


Nick M said...

David Cameron?

Scurra said...

Bingo. It's the trying to make sense of it that is the fun. And (deep down) also knowing that "if I were in charge, we'd do it like this" whilst accepting that we're never going to win the lottery (and therefore we are incredibly envious of those who do, or even - like Mr Levine - come close.)

Of course, I'm not a fan. I'm certainly a nerd (in the sense that I could hold my own in a trivia contest, and, yes, I've written my fair share of retro-continuity.) But I'm not a fan, because I refuse to join a "team".

Nicholas Jackson said...

Last year I showed my (then 3½ year old) daughter the Jodie Whittaker walking through the forest announcement video. She looked at me excitedly and said "oh wow, that's so cool". Just as the first Doctor I remember is Tom Baker, the first Doctor she will remember is a woman. I'm really looking forward to watching it with her.

(Also, I've got several human friends who have changed gender. The Doctor being a woman is pretty much the least implausible thing that's ever happened on the programme.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am more or less on board with Jodie, not because I want a female Doctor, especially, but because I think it's a good idea to shake the format up. (Female Doctor + older male companion will probably get us away from the slightly stereotyped post-Rose Doctor/assistant romances we've head. Not that an older male companion can't have a crush on a younger female Doctor but the dynamic will be different.)

I did have a conversation with an intelligent ten year old girl who said that of course the Doctor could be old or young and of course he could be a black or white but there was something about him that meant that he ought to be a boy.

Am I correct in thinking that proper etiquette is to refer to previous incarnations of the Doctor as "she" from now on. (Although if there was ever a person who ought to be referred to as "they"...)

Mike Taylor said...

An incorporeal intelligence isn’t masculine or feminine, any more than it is Northern or Scottish,

You didn't make it to the end of Perelandra, then? :-)

SK said...

I suppose I could say, 'It's no longer really Doctor Who; I won't be watching'. But then out of honestly I'd have to admit that it hasn't really been Doctor Who for years, and I kept watching. I mean, what am I gong to do, not watch a programme called Doctor Who?

I think there is a commonly-held view that sex is intrinsic and essential to humans in a way that, say, the colour of one's skin, one's height, one's hair colour, even one's personality, and so on, is not. That you can imagine 'what would X be like if he was taller? If he did more exercise and was slimmer? If he was just a little bit less annoyingly obsessed with being right all the time?', and those questions make sense, but to say 'What would X be like if he was female?' is nonsensical because at that point you're not just positing an accidental change in X but such a fundamental shift that X would no longer be X.

(Not that I'm saying this view is correct, but that it is commonly-held, even by people who can't quite articulate it; such as, apparently, that intelligent ten-year-old. And not, of course, that this view necessarily implies that the 'essential' sex always matches the body shape.)

I thought it became obvious, if it wasn't earlier, at the point where the guy who was born from the looms regenerated into the guy whose mother was human, that 'regeneration' is not a process that takes place at one point in time, but that it reaches backwards and forwards across the regeneree's whole history, remaking everything from their earliest moments to their death.

It's not that the male Doctor regenerates into a woman; it's that after the regeneration, the Doctor has always been a woman, just like the regenerated eighth Doctor had always been half-human, even though, a few hours earlier, he wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Did people who are refusing to watch Dr Who because the Doctor has regenerated as a woman not notice the whole "Missy" thing?

SK said...

Casting a woman as the Doctor, though, does rather shake the format up in a way that the 'Missy' thing didn't (there have been female baddies in Doctor Who before, but there has never been a female lead).

Nick M said...

Yes. In fact many people at the time were highly critical of Missy BECAUSE she opened the way for a female doctor

Andrew Rilstone said...

David Cameron?

Well, it might be the case that on the TV he was "David Campbell". But the book (of the Web Planet) definitely says "David Cameron."

Ben said...

Given the average or even plausible human lifespan, David would likely be dead long before Susan had to regenerate at all. This seems like a more significant concern than the off-chance that she might start packing something extra down there.

Ben said...

Also, since you mention the symbionts from DS9, in my headcanon Susan would still be the Doctor's granddaughter if they met again, even if their sexes were reversed and Susan was now older. Kind of like how Sisko always addressed Dax as "Old Man."

Ria said...

His distaste for Jodie Whittaker is simply a distaste for trans people.

I transitioned in 1997. until Michelle Gomez did such a good job as Missy, I, too would have argued (and did argue) against casting a woman as the Doctor. and I also find it impossible to believe that the BBC did not allow (if not mandate) a female Doctor for political reasons. with that said, I think/hope that Whittaker will do a great job.

Unknown said...

There are no silly questions: any continuity problem which occurs to you has almost certainly occurred to J.K Rowling

Oh, such naïveté. I don't know very much at all about Babylon 5, but I know enough about the Harry Potter fandom to tell you that it is positively riddled with plot-holes and continuity problems. Perhaps moreso in these post-Pottermore, post-Fantastic Beasts, post-Cursed Child days… but even then, twas always so. Literally the most central bit of continuity across the seven novels (the circumstances of Harry's parents' murder, which coincide with the 'death' of Lord Voldemort and the origins of Harry's mysterious cursed scar) is retold in different and contradictory ways in nearly every book.