Sunday, November 06, 2022

Chibnall and I (4)

4: Squee

All fictional characters are constructs: David Copperfield and Dorothea Brooke just as much as Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear. Some of them seem to be real, but they never are. Karl Ove Knausgaard uses a writer's box of tricks to create the impression that he's telling us every detail of his life. But it's really only a tiny, stylised fragment. If he'd written everything down I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written.

But some characters are more constructed than others. Darth Vader is a two dimensional villain; but he does have a life story. He's defined by it. Little pod-racer slave; cynical Clone Wars apprentice; secret marriage; protégé of Palpatine; dead mother; younglings; Sith apprentice; Death Star; Alderaan; Cloud City; Endor; Redemption. Secondary canon sometimes adds to the story arc."Anakin had an apprentice named Asoka" is now a true fact across all media. But if a secondary source significantly contradicts that story arc, we reject it out of hand. Darth Vader can't be an ally of Count Dooku in the Clone Wars.

This means that new and interesting stories can arise inside the plot-arc, and be generated by it. The current Darth Vader comic book has a plot thread in which a post-Empire Strikes Back Vader makes contact with Sabe, the hand-maiden decoy of Amidala from Phantom Menace. She has worked out that the Dark Lord must be Anakin, but doesn't yet know that he was the one who killed Amidala. Things follow from this premise: our knowledge of Vader's plot arc makes us wonder how he will react, and what will follow. If we had no knowledge of Anakin Skywalker or Amidala, it is much harder to get worked up about the storyline.

You may think this is a lazy way of writing. You may think that it is cheating for one text to borrow significance from another. You may think that it amounts to a weaker writer stealing from a stronger one; to give his story an emotional impact it hasn't really earned. You might even think that this is why some people use "fan fiction" as a pejorative. I can't stop you from thinking any of those things.

But the Doctor doesn't have that kind of story arc. They don't really even have a biography. Or if they do, it remains pretty much exactly where it was in 1963. "The Doctor ran away from their home planet a long time ago and has been wandering ever since." That's pretty much the whole pitch. You can add "They used to be friends with the Master, but now they are bitter enemies" if you want to. If you are a fan, you can reel off sequences of events: "exiled to earth", "temporarily elected President of Gallifrey"; "changed their name during the Time War": but these aren't part of who the Doctor is. Incremental changes work their way into the story and become things which everybody knows: Sonic Screwdriver, Time Lords, Two Hearts, Gallifrey, Twelve Lives. But those are facts about the Doctor, not events in their story. 

Perhaps that's the difference: Darth Vader is a sequence of fictional events; Doctor Who is a bundle of fictional facts. Der Doktor ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Chris Chibnall would very much like "used to work for the Division" to become part of the Doctor's story. My guess is that it won't take. Doctor Who always regresses to the narrative mean. The story can't grow beyond "they ran away from home to wander in time and space".  If it did, it would no longer be Doctor Who. 

When Ian Chesterton was introduced into Doctor Who in 1963, we knew two things about him: he was a thirty-something male, and he taught chemistry at a London school. When he departed in 1966, we had not learned very much more. He was still a thirty-something man; he was still a chemistry teacher, but now he was a thirty-something chemistry teacher who had spent two or three years travelling with the Doctor.

I am sure we could assemble a list of trivial facts about him. He and Barbara had divergent opinions about the Beatles. His chemistry classes included Boyle's law. He like cricket more than he likes football. And we could deduce facts based on his age and profession. Evacuated from London in 1939; National Service in the army in 1950; retired from teaching around the end of the twentieth century.

His life after leaving the Doctor is not a completely blank sheet. There was a plan for him to appear in the 1983 story Mawdryn Undead (which was set in a boys boarding school) but the actor was unavailable, so the part was rewritten for the Brigadier. His name appears on a sign outside Coal Hill School in the 50th Anniversary story Day of the Doctor. (He's the chairman of the governors.) The School is only Coal Hill School in a manner of speaking: a kind of joke, or hyperlink, a chance for fans to stroke their beards and say, yes, well, of course, that was the name of the school that appeared in the very first episode in 1963. (And again, in Remembrance of the Daleks, for the twenty-fifth anniversary season, in 1988.) He talks to a camera about his adventures in a framing sequence for the VHS release of a partially wiped black and white story called the Crusaders. And in the children's TV spin-off, Sarah-Jane mentions in passing that there are two Oxford Professors, Ian and Barbara Chesterton, "who haven't aged, not since the sixties."

And for those who care about such things, he appeared in a dozen novels and fifty audio adventures. (Fifty!) Probably some comic books too. 

But none of this makes any difference. The appearance of Ian in Power of the Doctor is not a new chapter in a fictional character's life-story like the Return of Sherlock Holmes. It isn't a retrospective addition to a story arc like the Book of Boba Fett. The Ian who is surprised that Graham refers to the Doctor as "she" is a ninety something man who taught chemistry in a London school in the 60s and travelled with the Doctor for a couple of years. He is Ian. That's all he can ever be.

If you think about it as a story, it breaks. The serious man in the suit and the punkette who calls everything wicked don't fit into one story. You might as well show Big Bird, Frankenstein and the Mayor of Casterbridge at a support group meeting. Graham says that if he told anyone about his adventures in the TARDIS he would be thought insane, which is more or less word-for-word what Ian told the camera in the Crusade framing sequence. But hang on: aren't Jo Grant and Kate Stewart at the meeting too? Isn't this a world where there are government and extra-government organisations specifically to deal with alien threats? Where dinosaurs have been sighted in London (more than once) and the government has used Daleks to suppress public disorder? 

Well, no, it isn't. And it can't be. Doctor Who is about alien worlds invading and intersecting with the ordinary present day. So the ordinary present day world must always be the starting point. It's not like a Marvel movie where everyone remembers New York being flattened by aliens, and treat superheroes as a kind of ultra-celebrity. Every meeting with the Doctor is the first meeting with the Doctor; every alien invasion is the first alien invasion. A support group meeting -- even a Tegan/Ace team up -- is very close to being a contradiction in terms.

So why is it such great fun? Why we fans lap it up?

Fan fiction is not just a niche hobby: it is a state of mind. If I say "Tellytubbies and Edge of Darkness take place in completely different universes" then your fan-brain starts to picture nuclear waste pouring into Tellytubbyland and Tinky-Winky testifying before a House of Commons inquiry. You can't stop yourself. I do it too. It's what being a fan means. 

Sarah-Jane said that Ian married Barbara, and that they both became dons at a prestigious university, and appeared to be the same ages that they were when they left the Doctor in 1966. So why is the Ian in Power of the Doctor well into his ninth decade? Well, the story of the Immortal Academics can't be true. Sarah said it was only a rumour, after all. But that's interesting in itself. The rumour must have come from somewhere. Ian and Barbara must have done something in order for the story to attach itself to those particular names. (Sarah hadn't heard of them from the Doctor: the Doctor doesn't talk about previous companions.) Maybe Ian and Barbara took a life-prolonging drug in an un-transmitted William Hartnell adventure; and maybe the drug had a finite duration, and poor Ian has done all his ageing in one go, like Steve Rogers. (That must have happened a couple of decades ago: he looked about 70 when he was talking to his un-named visitor about Richard the Lionheart.) 

But that's quite boring. So, then after years of living together as ageless academics, Barbara is called, let me see, Thal Space aid reconstruction.... But Ian cannot go with her for...reasons....and bereft, he chooses not to take the drug any more. 

Weak? Okay. Some years after leaving the Doctor and going their separate ways Ian and Barbara discover that clones -- robots? androids -- with their faces have been installed in Oxford University. But to what purpose? Well, in one of the quads they discover...

If you have ever asked a word-of-God Christian about an obvious contradiction in the Bible, you will know how the game works. 

I think some people like these kinds of teeny tiny cameos because they give them raw material to create fan fiction from. I think this is why fans cluster around franchises with uncertain or contradictory canons. And I think this may be why some people are perfectly okay with perfunctory and fragmentary story-telling. If you are a certain sort of person, the merest hint of mutual attraction between the Thirteenth Doctor and Yasmin generates a whole archive of "Thasmin" romances. A resolution, one way or the other, would spoil the game. Some fans were very cross with J.K Rowling and Rian Johnson for giving their stories the wrong sort of closure. Once Harry has married Ginny and Luke has retired to Ach-To, the sacred texts lose their exegetical potential.

Nostalgia isn't as good as it used to be. It's okay to look back, provided you don't stare. When I was a teenager, some of the stars of the golden age of radio and the last days of Music Hall were still alive. It was just barely possible to get Chesney Allen into a TV studio and stagger out a few lines of Underneath the Arches. And if you were a certain age, that was a wonderful thing to see, even if his performance left a little to be desired. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney still give pretty good performances: but we'd probably turn up and applaud them even if they didn't. Being Bob Dylan is quite an achievement in itself. So perhaps Chibnall is just providing us with a curtain call. Literally his last bow. It's giving us a chance to affirm how important the early days of Doctor Who were to us and how important William Russell was to the early days of Doctor Who. To say thank you, in a way. Perhaps they could have arranged for him to have tea with Paddington Bear. 

Doctor Who has never just been about Doctor Who. It has always partly been about the making of Doctor Who. I suppose any movie buff might be quite interested in knowing how his favourite film was put together; but Who fans are more interested than most in peeping behind the curtain. There were books like The Making of Doctor Who and the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special before there was organised fandom, and before that, there was Blue Peter. The process of creation is baked into the narrative itself. We knew from an early age that the nice one with the white hair turned into the silly one with the scarf because an actor name Jon Pertwee wanted to move on and the BBC tracked down an actor named Tom Baker playing Rasputin on a building site. And of course, in Old Who you could very often see the wires and the construction lines. 

Fandom created the idea of the Doctor Who family: that having worked on Doctor Who, even as a caterer or a hair-dresser, obliged you to appear at conventions, answer obscure questions, and be greeted with rapturous applause. If Christopher Eccleston doesn't want to do conventions or come-backs, there is a sense that he isn't quite playing by the rules. 

When that scene broke on our TV sets, I don't think my first thought was necessarily: squee, squee Ian Chesterton. I think my first thought was squee, squee William Russell. (Good god, is he still alive?)

I** L***** posted a back-stage picture of all the actors together and said that this was what made the episode so special. William and Bonnie and Sophie in a room together. Squee, squee. 

There's nothing wrong with it, particularly. But it rather confirms Doctor Who as an exercise in mummification. An endless memorial to a series that can never move forward.

William Russell appeared alongside Marlon Brando as one of the Kryptonian elders in the first Superman movie. He also did a scene with Brian Blessed in Blackadder. He remarried fairly late in life, and his son Alfred is also an actor. This information will be useful to you if you are ever called on to play Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Nick M said...

*Six degrees

Louise H said...

I was genuinely surprised at how many fan people that I know were made happy by Power of the Doctor. I expected more people to consider that their intelligence was being insulted by a incoherent plot, terrible dialogue and characters that lurched between flat and sentimental which then tried far too obviously to buy their affections with a few minutes of neither well done nor particularly interesting nostalgia. But I clearly underestimated the appeal of that nostalgia, and as I think Andrew is suggesting, often much fan interest arises out of the sheer paucity of the offerings of canon along with a willingness to ignore its contradictions.

Anyway I hated the whole thing enough to write fanfic, which is by far the most satisfying way of hating something that I nonetheless feel compelled to watch.

Mark Schaal said...

I want to post "Frankly, if they didn't get Shatner I don't see why I should watch it."

However I can't forget getting a bit teary eyed when Matt Smith met the Curator.

Achille Talon said...

I think the most elegant explanation for the Immortal Ian Chesteron and Barbara Rumour is that there was an unseen adventure or two where the Doctor, Ian and Barbara spent a while in the Year 2000, with Ian and Barbara forced to pose as a couple for one reason or another. Indeed, perhaps they had to slip into the lives of their older selves while the said older selves were on holiday somewhere (having, naturally, themselves arranged to be away on those dates to facilitate the time loop).

dm said...

@Mark Schaal

It's funny that Moffatt did the same trick twice for the anniversary, of having the actor's very recognisable voice occur before seeing them (for Baker in Day, and for McGann in Night.) A very carefully stage managed reveal that revelled in pushing the right buttons. It felt a bit more like we, as an audience, were in on it, that those in charge knew that WE knew it was some fun and silly fanservice and we could just enjoy it for what it was.