Monday, March 06, 2023

The Problem of Susan (2)

Last week, or possibly the week before last, the Twittersphere became concerned about a scene in the 1964 Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth which is alluded to in Peter Capaldi's 2017 swan song, Twice Upon a Time. 

In the old, black and white story, the First Doctor becomes exasperated with his teenaged granddaughter Susan. She's recklessly climbed on a derelict wall, causing a bridge to collapse and cutting our heroes off from the TARDIS. He tells her that she's "far too curious" and "always rushing about" and when she protests that there's "no real harm done" and that she "didn't pull down the bridge on purpose" he stomps off, adding, preposterously, "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom." There is a general consensus that William Hartnell ad libbed the line, or at any rate suggested it during rehearsals. Nothing analogous appears in either the Peter Cushing movie or the Terrence Dicks novelisation.

If we are treating the Dalek Invasion of Earth as an old, 1960s television programme, the scene requires no explanation. Terry Nation was born in 1930, William Hartnell in 1908: naturally the script contains out-dated and old-fashioned attitudes. The Doctor is an elderly man, maybe 70 years old, with the attitudes of someone born towards the end of the reign of Queen Victoria. Susan is a sixteen or seventeen year old girl who he has been bringing up since she was a child. He is making an inappropriate and embarrassing threat, but it's the kind of embarrassing threat that any old-fashioned father might have made in 1964. It may be that the Doctor -- who is definitely absent-minded and possibly senile -- has temporarily forgotten Susan's age and is talking to her as he might have done when she was eight. This is the man who forgets his companions' names and confuses drugs with gloves. More likely, he is genuinely cross, but at the same time, consciously making a joke against himself. He's not saying "I would seriously like to hit you"; it's more like "I am as cross with you as I would have been when you were a naughty toddler." It's pretty much the same joke that Jackie Tyler made when she told the adult Rose that she was not too big for a slap. At the end of the story, the Doctor starts to scold Susan as if she were a little girl; and it is entirely clear that he doesn't mean it at all. 

"You little monkey. You know, since you've been away from that school, you seem to have got yourself thoroughly disorganised, haven't you? Yes, you need taking in hand."

If this were a comic book; that would pretty much be the end of the conversation. If Sue Richards had threatened to spank Franklin in an 1960s Fantastic Four story (which I don't think she would have done) we would be happy to say that she was saying what any 1960s Mum might have said to a 1960s child. Insofar as the story was still canon, the floating time line would have overwritten the bad word, and we would "deem" that she had threatened to take away the lad's IPad or ground him on movie night.

But there is no floating time-line in Doctor Who. It's a revealed text. If the Doctor said it, the Doctor said it.  

People sometimes say "You can't judge the past by the standards of the present." To which I reply "In fact, you can only judge the past by the standards of the present, because you live in the present and standards are what you judge things by." (People also sometimes say "I saw it with my own eyes" which always makes me wonder who else's eyes they suppose I thought they might have seen it with.) But it is probably true to say that you shouldn't judge the popular culture of the past entirely by the standards of the popular culture of the present. 

By the standards of 2023, the Doctor's attitude to Susan is, at best, sexist and patronising, and at worst, border-line abusive. By the standards of 1964, it is an innocuous piece of father-daughter banter. We don't imagine that the Doctor actually beats Susan: but we have to assume that he thought that smacking was perfectly normal and the kind of thing it was okay to make lighthearted remarks about. And everyone agreed with him. Ian would be a very unusual chemistry teacher if he has never sent a pupil to the headmaster for corporal punishment. As late as 1972, Doctor Who was preceded on BBC 1 by a sit-com about a boy's boarding school entitled Whacko! 

But for us to maintain a Watsonian faith in Doctor Who as a revealed text we have to find a way to convince ourselves that this patronising, sexist, borderline abusive old man is the same person as the good looking young guy in the Fez who can't bear to see children crying and respects the lifestyle choices of transgender horses.

And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. At the end of the same story the Doctor sees that Susan is in love with the rebel leader, David Cameron, and -- believing that she'll be happier marrying her boyfriend than spending eternity in a blue box with Grandpa -- locks her out and leaves. It is a scene I like very much. It's moving and in-character and a little bit funny and leads into one of the all time great lines in Who history.

"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."

He never did come back.

It would be fair to say that you wouldn't write a scene like that today. It's going a little over the top to talk in terms of forced marriage. I am not even quite sure I would describe it as "fridging" (the phenomenon when the death, or in this case departure, of a female character matters only in terms of how it makes the male character feel.) But it is another incredibly sexist and patronising scene. 

Four years later (in a story called Fury From The Deep) the Doctor's belief in personal freedom is said to be a core part of who he is. His incumbent companion Victoria is obviously completely unsuited to the adventurous life; but the Doctor gives her as much time as she needs to decide whether to stay on the TARDIS or to make a new life with some nice humans in a conflict-free period of Earth history. Victoria specifically says that the Doctor thinks it's important for people to make their own minds up; the Doctor himself later tells Jamie not to be sad because leaving was Victoria's own decision. How is this the same person who denied Susan agency -- kicking her out and double locking the TARDIS doors? Does regeneration change your core values to that extent? If so, does it mean anything to say that the First and the Second Doctors are the same person? And if they aren't, is there even a character called the Doctor to be having this conversation about?

And we can't really say that the Doctor is behaving like an elderly man from the 1960s because that's how elderly men from the 1960s behaved. Because the Doctor is not an elderly man; and Susan is not a teenager. We are told from the outset that they are aliens, or, possibly, human beings from Earth's very remote future. Maybe we are supposed to take it for granted that dotty old scientists from the 49th century had the same mannerisms and social attitudes as dotty old scientists from the 19th. But that's a pretty problematic assumption in itself. Cavemen and Crusaders and Aztecs all sound like white middle class English people from the 1950s because God is an Englishman and the Universe is English. 

In 1966 it was REVEALED that the Doctor could change his physical appearance, and in 1967 it was REVEALED that the Doctor was actually four hundred and fifty years old and in 1969 it was REVEALED that he was a member of a godlike species called the (checks notes) Time Lords and in 1974 it was REVEALED that his planet is called (checks notes again) Gallifrey and in 1979 it was REVEALED that Time Lords can swap bodies like clothes and in 2018 it was REVEALED that they can change gender during the regeneration process in in 2020 it was REVEALED...I don't think I want to talk about what was revealed in 2020. 

But all these things have always been true. It was a 450 year old gender-swapping Time Lord from Gallifrey who abandoned Susan on earth with her nice but dim human boyfriend. 

It has never been definitively REVEALED who Susan was. For years I adhered to a piece of fanfic by Jeremy Bentham which identified her as a human foundling adopted by the Doctor. This seemed to admirably save the appearances: it allowed Susan to be Susan but eliminated the need for a Mrs Who. I never took to Eric Saward's story (published in the Radio Times) which identified her with Lady Larn, a descendent of Rassilon and the opponent of a corrupt Time Lord regime, who happened to be hiding in the same TARDIS that the Doctor stole. The Cartmell Masterplan would have REVEALED that she was cloned from The Other. (If you don't know who The Other is you don't particularly need to.) But the Fan Consensus remains that she was simply a Time Lady, the Doctor's literal grand-daughter. Post-reboot, we are less squeamish about the idea of the Doctor having done sex than we used to be.

In 1964, it was just about possible to defend the end of Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan has directly said that she is in love with David; she has told him that she wants to belong in one place and have an identity of her own; and wants to help rebuild the Dalek ravaged earth. But she feels a responsibility to her grandfather. The Doctor isn't forcing his preferred outcome on her, but facilitating the choice she's already made. Back in Unearthly Child, she begged to be allowed to stay on 20th century earth, even if it meant leaving the TARDIS; which the Doctor dismissed as foolish sentimentality. If anything, he has become more respectful of her own choices. 

In 2023, that doesn't work: there is no way that the Doctor leaving Susan with David can be a valid decision. One immortal Time Lord is marooning another immortal Time Lord on a primitive planet, knowing full well that her mortal lover will expire like a mayfly. Terrence Dicks' novelisation of the Five Doctors showed us a glimpse of a relatively content Susan living on the reconstructed post-Dalek earth; but his original Eight Doctors novel showed David being relieved to die first because Susan has told him that she will live forever and he will get old. I** L*****'s objection to Jodie Whitaker depended on this point: the Doctor would not have left Susan with David knowing that she might someday regenerate into a boy; ergo, trans-gender regeneration is non-canonical, ergo, hashtag not my Doctor and I always liked Babylon 5 better in any case.

In the 2017 story Twice Upon a Time, the Twelfth Doctor's companion Bill uses the words "bloody" and "arse" in front of the third First Doctor (now played by David Bradley) and the third First Doctor responds using the same threat he made to Susan some half century ago. This closes off the possibility that the remark about smacking was an innocuous joke. And it makes it impossible to pretend that the Doctor never said it. The First Doctor apparently goes around making wildly inappropriate remarks to anyone and everyone. A Victorian grandpa would distinctly not have said the b-t-m word in front of a lady (particularly one he had just told off for using a stronger word for derrière). Are we supposed to think that the old boy has gone completely doolally and regards all human beings as naughty toddlers? Or is he perfectly well aware that he is making a sexual remark (which is how Bill takes it) in which case we have to reframe the First Doctor as a Benny Hill level dirty old man, with no filter at all.

I can think of one possible solution: it may be the one Moffat is nudging us towards. The Doctor is hyper-correcting. He hasn't been away from Gallifrey that long: he doesn't understand these funny human creatures very well, although he rather likes some of them. He's an alien trying to fit in, and he sometimes says inappropriate things because he doesn't fully understand the culture he has appropriated. Susan herself does a very good job of pretending to be a 1960s student, although her slang is a bit self-conscious. ("Aren't they fabulous?") But if Susan thinks that England went over to decimal currency in 1962, then the Doctor might well misunderstand the nuances of what Captain Kirk once called "this human custom called spanking". He's in a similar boat to that alien who wanted a very common human first name and inadvertently adopted the name of a very common car as his alias. 

And this is probably the only Watsonian way of reading Doctor Who. Every jelly baby, every crumpet, every game of cricket -- every moral principle -- is a bit of play-acting, an ineffable being doing the kinds of things he thinks humans do, not always very well. The Doctor plays with yo-yos, not because he is an overgrown schoolboy who thinks playing with yo-yos is fun but because that's what he thinks is expected of humans. It's a kind of reverse cargo cult: he once saw a human being doing this strange thing called cricket and has decided that doing cricket will make him seem human. The more cricket he does, the more human he will seem. Which saves the appearances and allows us to believe that there is some continuity of identity between Jon Pertwee and Jodie Whitaker. But it rather spoils Doctor Who.

It's a fact that there are old Doctor Who stories in which Asian characters are played by white actors with silly yellow make up. The pure Watsonian has to argue that Doctor Who takes place in an alternate reality where that is what Chinese people really look like. Or perhaps that Greel hired a white henchmen and asked him to pretend to be Chinese, providing him with only a pile of Penny Dreadfuls as research material. But in that case why why didn't Litefoot or someone say "Hang on you bally blighter I've been to the Far East and the native johnnies don't look a bit like you?" So maybe they are on an alien planet where the telepathic natives have somehow morphed into simulacra of Victorian stereotypes? Captain Kirk was always finding himself on planets where everyone thought they were in a James Cagney gangster movie, or a Kirk Douglas Roman epic or a John Wayne cowboy movie. 

Maybe it is simpler to just expunge this material from the Canon. Cancel culture, I think they call it. Today we tell New Fans to skip Talons of Weng Chiang because it is Racist; tomorrow we will tell them to fast forward through William Hartnell's cheeky ad lib because it is Sexist; next week we will tell them that the entirety of Old Who is not worth bothering with. That's one way through the thicket. The stories we like are Revealed. The ones we don't are just stories. It's common enough for liberal clergymen to say that the bits of the Bible which agree with their politics are the literal true facts about the Historical Jesus, but that the parts of the Bible they don't agree with were daubed in after the event by some evil Roman emperor or American evangelist.

This is where Watsonianism leads us. We want to believe that Holmes and Watson are real, so we pretend that the Holmes stories were really written by Dr Watson. But to iron out the inconsistencies, we have to say that this paragraph isn't true (because Watson misunderstood what was going on) and that paragraph isn't true (because Watson lied to make Holmes look good) and that whole story isn't true (because Watson was being discrete) and that other whole story isn't true (because it was inserted into the canon by Moriarty to test our faith.) We end up saying that none of it is true: Watson created a fictional character called Sherlock Holmes as a cover for his own amateur sleuthing. Or maybe Watson was mad and made up stories about an impossibly clever imaginary friend. 

Treating fiction as if it was true ends up making it less true. Next time you are at a fashionable wine and cheese party and someone asks you what is meant by Deconstruction, you can have that. 

So. Susan Foreman is a Time Lady. Of course she is. She used to wear funny raised collars and cardinal's skullcaps and participate in arcane ceremonies in the Panopticon. She backed her Grandpa up when he moaned to the Council about minoscopes. She knew multiple Doctors before he regenerated into the one we erroneous call the First: she watched that dashing young chap with the beret and the moustache renew himself into the crotchety old man. Perhaps when they first left Gallifrey she was still a boy. Perhaps she went into the TARDIS wardrobe and tried on new bodies, settling on a cool earth teenager. When no humans are around, she and the Doctor compare notes about how well their deception is playing out. 

Your mileage may vary. Doctor Who survives as a text; but Dalek Invasion Earth is sucked dry and we are left with a narrative husk.

There is no solution to the problem of Susan. There is a fundamental hole in Doctor Who, and there always was. Doctor Who is an Englishman who likes cricket and tea-cakes and an alien Time Lord, and he blatantly can't be both. Doctor Who is a set of stories made up by writers reflecting the attitudes of their times, and it is a single text about a singular character called the Doctor, and it blatantly can't be both. Like Christian theology, it makes most sense when it is allowed to be most nonsensical. The central conceit is a box which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Which is a nonsensical combination of words that doesn't really mean anything at all.

When Russel T Davies revived the series in 2005, he eschewed reboots. The Doctor who saved Rose from the Autons was the same Doctor who was rude to Ian in I.M Foreman's junkyard and the same Doctor who Grace kissed in Los Angeles on New Years Day, 2000. But he hung a huge lampshade on the problem. 

Dalek Invasion of Earth is a fun dark slow moving dated classic black and white story. I laughed at the silly old Doctor's silly old remarks in the spirit in which they were intended. I wiped away a tear at the noble old Doctor's awkward kind well meaning cruel farewell to his semi-grand-daughter in the spirit they were intended. 

If you're a Time Lord, how can you also be a crotchety old man with sexist attitudes? 

Lots of planets have a north.


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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Gavin Burrows said...

These all seem like very good reasons to be a Doylist.


A Doylist

Richard Worth said...

Job- 25-27 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another;

Nick M said...

To be fair, it's not only Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes that pose this dichotomy. Attempts to treat Friends in a Watsonian way run up against the unfortunate fact that we have two different accounts of how Chandler and Rachel met. And this is a supposedly realistic setting without even the excuse of alternate dimensions.

(Any comments of 'well just ignore Friends' will be met with a loud Raspberry)