Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Falling Back in Love with Doctor Who

I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was a little kid. I enjoyed the first season (or series, if you like) of the rebooted program (or programme, if you like), but I gradually fell out of love with it. The purpose of this isn't to persuade anyone to my point of view, but rather to explain why I arrived at the conclusions I did. And I don't even hate the show. I think it's a pretty good program, just not one for me.

Falling out of Love

I think my disillusionment with the series began with the Christmas Invasion, at the end, where the Doctor ruins Harriet Jones and sets up a sequence of events that leads to enslavement and near extinction of Mankind, because she didn't respect his authoritah.

Holy Borderline Personality Disorder!

If you're not familiar and don't want to click through that link, characteristics of BPD include alternating between idealizing and demonizing others, impulsivity, and overreaction to perceived slights.

It's hard to argue that the Tenth Doctor is anything but a textbook case. I can't imagine it's how the writers wanted the audience to interpret the Doctor, but I think my theory fits the facts better than most. The Doctor is engaging and enthusiastic and nice to his friends. But often, he's casually cruel, and, as the old chestnut goes, "If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person."

Also, his love for humanity struck me as patronizing, the kind of sing-songy praise one gives to a dog or a toddler performing a new trick: Oh, might have spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas... and another million as downloads, but you always revert to the same basic shape: the fundamental human. End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that's the word! Indomitable! Ha!

And, of course, he has a bit of a temper:

He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that's her. That's always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.

I don't care if you served your summer internship at Hell Labs' Ironic Punishment division, infinite punishment for a finite crime is monstrous, no matter how you spin it.

My friend Eric described this arrogance as his fatal flaw. I'm not sure I agree with that. Were the roles reversed, and the acts he perpetrates committed against him instead, I think we would perceive them as unambiguously evil. I mean, I don't require my heroes to be lily white, but if you're laughing maniacally while committing genocide, it does seem that you crossed a line somewhere.

If I go crazy will you still call me Superman?

One of the questions that arise about Superman from time to time is, "If he's so great, why doesn't he fix a war/nuclear proliferation/Michael Bay/World Hunger?"

The answer usually given is that the problem is not one that can be solved without creating many more problems through that solution, but moreover Superman recognizes its not his place to chart humanity's course, even if he doesn't agree with the decisions we make. The freedom to make choices includes the freedom to make BAD choices. Or, to quote the Offspring, "I gotta go make my own mistakes."

Harriet Jones orders the departing Sycorax ship destroyed, and the Doctor gets all mad, "You don't have to worry your little head, baby. I'll always be here for you." She justifies it by removing a menace that had already acted dishonorably, they have no reason to trust it will abide by its word and several reasons to believe it won't and counters that he won't always be there for her, and humanity should take responsibility to defend itself.

I was reading a Wrinkle in Time to my daughter and I was thinking how diametrically opposed the viewpoints are, and that was almost the central point of this piece. In the climax, the three women support Meg, and give her everything she needs to rescue Charles Wallace, but she has to take these steps alone.
Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to con- found the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." She paused, and then she said, "May the right prevail."

It's about agency, and empowerment and helping people become the best version of themselves they can be. It's the exact opposite of brainwashing a friend to forget you, "for her own good." (Yes, it would have killed her, but that wasn't his choice to make.)

For someone who's always "so sorry," the Doctor shows surprisingly little regret for almost wiping out humanity in a fit of pique. (He tells alternate universe Pete Tyler to "Keep an eye on her" on learning that Jones is still in power. He's such a dickhead.)
Andy Dufresne - who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.

That was more of a tangent than I intended, but from the very beginning of Tennant's era, I was...suspicious, I suppose, less willing to accept that things were as they appeared, but always thinking a little deeper than the writers intended, looking for what would be the logical consequences of what was presented to us.

And I know that this an unfair metric to apply to the show, because very few heroes in any medium would pass if held to this standard. However, I don't think  unreasonable to scrutinize his actions more closely in light of what's already been established.

Is there an element of confirmation bias here? If I go hate-watching the show, looking for evidence that the Doctor is an asshole and a hypocrite, then I'm certainly going to find it. And again, I know that this wasn't what the writers intended, that the Doctor has a "slight flaw in his character", to steal a phrase from Barry Hughart, but if that slight flaw leads him to committing genocide, well, it probably rises above the level of character flaw. Hannibal Lecter kills people if they're rude. The Doctor shouldn't.

All right, enough of that. I've belabored this point long enough.


The Doctor Who wiki has its own entry for genocides the Doctor has committed.


All right, now I'm really done, for real. There was enough evidence to interpret Tennant's version of the Doctor as a jerk and that's the point of view I gradually came to hold. I was losing interest in the show already, and when Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, with his stupid face,
"Come along, Pond."

I knew that it was going to make or break my interest in the show and it broke it.

Moffat is a talented guy who produces a great program, but his version of Doctor Who is just something I don't have any interest in watching. His interpretation of the Doctor is someone largely without peer, and therefore he'll overcome most challenges easily. I observed this in one of my posts about Superman, that when you reach that level of power, "Can he?" stops being a meaningful question, and is replaced by "Should he?" or "How will he?"

I think this kind of story can work, but the viewer has to like the characters. If your thesis is "The Doctor is awesome and saves the day", and I don't think the Doctor is awesome, I'm not going to enjoy the show. Since every episode seemed like 45 minutes of Matt Smith and/or River Song smirking about how awesome they are, I did not enjoy his tenure.

I've tried a couple episodes here and there, but even the Doctor's Wife, written by Neil Gaiman and almost universally lauded, struck me as unbearably twee. ("Look at me! I'm channeling Bellatrix Lestrange! Now I'm making TARDIS noises! Vworp! Vworp!")

And it's impossible to be a geek in 2013 and not hear about Doctor Who, but it wasn't something I cared about or followed. After 25 years, I had decided that I was no longer a fan of Doctor Who any longer.

Josh goes off on a tangent about Audio Books

I had a subscription to Audible for a while, but I cancelled it recently. One of the books I bought through them was Lalla Ward's reading of Shada.

I loved this book. It quickly became one of my all time favorite Doctor Who stories. When I went looking for something similar to it at Audible, however, I saw that it was pretty much the only one of its kind. I could get very brief audio versions of the classic Doctor Who stories, or new adventures featuring the modern Doctors, neither of which really appealed to me. (I didn't hate idea of listening to them, mind you, I just thought my credits would be spent better elsewhere.)

And some of them were just plain terrible.

To digress for a moment, I was born in 1974 and grew up in the days before the Internet. I took my geeky activities where I found them, begging a ride from my father's girlfriend to go to the first Lehighcon, walking to the hobby store when I was staying with my grandparents, getting together to play Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. (When I finished my final day of high school, I walked directly to our DM's house to resume our campaign.)

People are strange, when you're a Stranger

I assume that my name must have gotten on a mailing list because one day a catalog arrived in the mail. It was a window into a wider world, with offers for RPGs I had never heard of, like Chill and a whole ton of ICE's Middle Earth line. and zillions of lead miniatures. It also a section for videotapes, for Doctor Who, of which I was already a fan, and other cult shows, like Dark Shadows. I can't remember when the catalog arrived, but it must have been after 1991, because they offered the Stranger video series.

It starred Colin Baker, and featured Nicola Bryant as "Miss Brown", his assistant. Baker was the mysterious Stranger, who showed up in unusual situations and fixed them, like some kind of...medic, or chirurgeon. It eventually found its own mythology and stopped being some kind of wink-nudge off-label Doctor Who, but I liked the idea of the plausibly deniable Doctor.

For comparison, this is the Doctor:

And this is the Stranger:

The BBC's licensing is so patchwork and weird anyway. I recall that one publisher (Marvel? Virgin?) had the rights to use Absolom Daak, Dalek Killer, but not the Daleks. I mean, Jesus, why bother at that point?

I was talking with a friend I didn't meet until we were both adults, about Trial of a Time Lord, the 14-part episode where Colin Baker shouts a lot and occasionally commits a wee bit of genocide. She said she hadn't seen it in 20 years, and I said that I hadn't seen it in 20 years, and since we had each watched Doctor Who on the same Public television station (NJN, baby!), I realized that we had probably watched it at the exact same time.

I forget what led me to the Big Finish website. I happened to be reading about the One Doctor, and I thought I'd check it out. I like the summary at Wikipedia. Whoever did the editing seems to have accidentally substituted "homoerotic" in place of "holographic" and I'm not about to fix it. It's probably an error with the spell-checker, but it still amuses me. Certainly changes the tone of the piece. 

The story features Bonnie Langford, returning as Mel, and Colin Baker, returning as the Sixth Doctor and it's just so much fun. I was never a fan of Colin Baker, though after reading a bit more of his tenure, I've come to the conclusion that a lot of what was going wrong with the program at the time couldn't be blamed on him. He is really good and genuinely entertaining in these stories. On his 900th birthday, the Doctor's birthday wishes are for Universal Peace, Better control over the TARDIS and "more manageable hair", and I like that he's got a sense of humor.

I was asking a friend if she thought Lily was old enough to watch Doctor Who and she was like, "Well, it is a show for children." I think that's something the series has lost in its modern incarnation. It's better in a lot of ways, but it takes itself so seriously, that the sense of wonder is gone. 

I also picked up He Jests at Scars, because hey, the Valeyard AND Shakespeare. The plays are cheap, they're DRM-free, and listening to them, I really believe that anything can happen, just like when I was a kid watching the show. 

 I watched the Name of the Doctor last night, and I rather enjoyed it. Yeah, River Song was mugging for the camera, yeah, "a psychic conference call" is going to age about as well as "aliens in the wi-fi", but it was fun. Also, it had corridors and running, something NuWho is sadly lacking. 

So, I'll watch the specials. I'll watch Matt Smith regenerate and see what Peter Capaldi does with the role. If I like it, great. If not, I'll wait it out, I'll try it every so often, and I'll do my best to keep quiet about it around my friends who enjoy it.

 So, do I think of myself a fan again? I guess I am.


  1. Ok, I can't argue with most of this, but New Who lacking in running through corridors? That's preposterous. "Running through corridors" could practically be a three word summary of the entire show.

    As for Tennant, I rather liked that his concept of morality was only loosely related to ours and that he viewed humans with much the same pride we might have in a particularly tenacious dog. I mean, he's a thousand year old time traveling alien supergenius -- What would you expect?

    Also, it's not like the writers are unaware here -- the doctor's god complex has been a recurring theme, addressed directly on more than one occasion.

    1. Crap. I was just reading this and I was hoping to swoop in and do a little clean-up editing before anyone read this. I'm rather amazed you got all the way through. This post is a mess.

      cfc: "but New Who lacking in running through corridors? That's preposterous. "Running through corridors" could practically be a three word summary of the entire show."

      I'll defer to your expertise, as you've doubtless seen more of it. The episodes I saw didn't seem to have as much as the old show.

      cfc: "Also, it's not like the writers are unaware here -- the doctor's god complex has been a recurring theme, addressed directly on more than one occasion."

      They acknowledge it, and, if I'm recalling correctly, it was one of the central themes of the Waters of Mars. I guess it's a matter of perception. The writers say he has this god complex, but they treat it like a quirk.

      I say that he's got this god complex and the things he does because of it are so terrible that it's hard not to see him as a villain in some stories. For me, it's a "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" level of quirk, something so big that it defines him.

    2. I've had a chance to sleep on this, so perhaps I can articulate my point more cleanly.

      It's the grossly disproportionate nature of his responses that get me. It's like someone stealing my pen and me stabbing them in the neck. They shouldn't have taken my pen, but my response is way out of proportion.

      It is largely a matter of perspective. We're each looking at the same acts, and we each acknowledge the god complex, but you see the Tenth Doctor as a good man who does bad things sometimes, while I've come to see him as a bad man who does good things.

      And again, I'm not sure how fair that is, because it's clearly not what the writers intended, and if you look at the actions of any action hero and take them to their logical conclusions, a lot of them come out looking shitty. But that's where I am, and that's why I lost interest.

  2. You beat me to the Waters of Mars. I don't think the Doctor's god complex comes off as a quirk there at all. And it may be the one time the Doctor shows genuine remorse. But it's an isolated incident. Most of the time, he's a complete dick.

    Your post also reminds me of a moment towards the end of episode 2 of Series 5 of the reboot, "The Beast Below", where the Doctor gets all pissy that Amy Pond makes a choice for him that wasn't hers to make. He threatens to take her home right then and there and end their friendship, even though he's done the same thing about a million times to every companion he's had.

    1. Amy, you should have gotten out when you had the chance!

  3. This friend to whom you refer sounds awfully cool. Also, Classic Who > NuWho. Always.