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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Doctor and I

I was devoted to Doctor Who in the late 70s and early 80s -- the long-scarf era. I only ever saw the Fourth Doctor, on the hand-me-down BBC reruns in the afternoons of channel 24, the local PBS affiliate, back when the distinction between UHF and VHF told you something about the shows. (It was not quite the era of rabbit-ear antennae; ours was mounted on the roof). This (as I love to astound children of the twentieth-first century by telling them, though I need to find a constant supply of new children who are not yet eye-rollingly tired of hearing it) was when you had to watch TV when it was on; if you missed an episode, it vanished into the ether, impossible to retrieve; gone from your timeline, unless you chanced upon a rebroadcast. So there was no possibility of an arc; the Doctor was, appropriately enough, someone who dropped into your life when he felt like it, whimsical and captivating, and possibly out of time order. At twelve I thirsted for the cerebral whimsy of the BBC (I was even more devoted to the glorious surreal absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus), and for the Doctor's nerdy, kind, goofy, clever world-saving, his disdain for the crudity of violence. Although I probably caught fewer episodes of it, I had a reverence for Doctor Who that I never felt for Star Trek, which seemed bulletheaded, smug, and militaristic by comparison, for all its utopian progressivism. (I also hated how Trek consistently gestured at scientific rigor and consistently failed to deliver; and though in retrospect I admire the revolutionary things they did diversity-wise, I have, as a Jew, never really forgiven them the Ferengi).

Noah has me watching the show again. He's seen everything since the 2005 reboot and is working his way through Old Who, from its sixties debut on. Since my time is limited, he's curating for me: we've watched our way through his selection of episodes of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors (including absolutely every bit of River Song, at my insistence), caught up to the present (we were very excited for The Return of Doctor Mysterio, which turned out to be cute but thin and forgettable), and now have returned to review the important bits of Nine and Ten.

I only learned very recently that the principal original creators of Doctor Who were a woman and a Jew. At first glance, this fact might seem a bit of a surprise.

Despite the last few seasons' many terrific-though-often-problematic female characters (probably my absolute favorite scene ever is Clara's showdown with Vastra and Jenny when the newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor is out of commission in bed upstairs; Ashildr and Clara sailing off into the sunset in a diner comes close) the show remains very boyish (for all the great dialogue among women, there are relatively few Bechtdel passes, since the Doctor is usually the topic).

It also seems, for all its galactic diversity, rather starchily, impeccably (post-)Anglican: the obsession with a tidy, secularized, sentimental Christmas; the fondly mocking reverence for the many British Queens (plus Churchill) who keep popping up in the Doctor's timeline; the mild-mannered but unshakable assurance that fair play and valor will carry the day, and that moral dilemmas always present triumphant third alternatives to the sufficiently clever. Despite Sydney Newman's brief influence at the very beginning, it's a manifestly goyish show.

And yet it's also the story of an exile (in New Who, a guilt-ridden exile from a destroyed and lost place); a stubborn outsider, unassimilable, devoted to humanity (which is to say Earth, which is to say Britain) but never comfortably one with it or of it -- the man who loves his friends, but can never be like them. The disdain and scorn for violent solutions, the worship of intellect, cleverness, and negotiation... the eternal wanderer, outside of time and culture, cursed and blessed by difference. For a show with the least Jewish participation of any of the great late-twentieth-century science fiction media epics (no Roddenberry/Shatner/Nimoy, no Spielberg, no Lorne Green, no Kubrick, no Rod Serling, )... it's very Jewish.

Maybe some of this is by accident. Or maybe it's a reversal: just as only Jews could invent Superman, chiseled whitebread boy-scout farmboy superstrong √úbermensch, the ultimate goy (albeit secretly an immigrant alien with a Hebrew name)... maybe only the goyim could raise an sfnal Wandering Jew quite as explicit as The Doctor to a central cultural icon? Or maybe it's just the cultural thing that American nerds, overcompensating, project themselves into the bodies of violent supermen, while British nerds defiantly hold up the ultimate boffin? And the ultimate boffin turns out to be a rootless exile alien who cannot save his own people, but is constantly responsible for saving others with intellect and desperate improvisation?

Which is to say that the ultimate boffin turns out to be, practically speaking, a Jew.

I didn't think of this consciously when I was twelve. But boy, did it resonate.

Among the podcasts I've been listening to lately (Radiolab, The Heart, Two Dope Queens, For Colored Nerds, WTF, Another Round, This American Life, The Longest Shortest Time...) is the new Buzzfeed podcast about being Muslim in America, See Something Say Something. It's consistently warm, funny, intelligent and relevant, in large part due to its charmingly savvy, exuberant, goofy, and openhearted host, Ahmed Ali Akbar, and his excellent and often surprising taste in guest selection. One of the questions he often asks his guests is "when did you first see yourself reflected in the media you consumed?"

When I ask this question of myself, I feel the pull of a double consciousness. I grew up as a white boy in America, so there's a part of me that wants to say: when did I not? Taran, Bilbo, Luke, Kip, Wart, Will from The Dark is Rising, Spidey, Kal-El -- how were they not mine, not for me? Where was any barrier between me and them -- or, for that matter (from my position at the unmarked center of things), between me and Ged or Alice or Dorothy or Moomintroll?

And yet that's also partly a lie. In my reading, I was always Gandalf, never Bilbo; I was Merlin and Professor X and Obi-Wan; the old men, the smarties. There was some way in which it was clear that I was not, myself, the one who pulled the sword out of the stone; that I was INT and WIS, not STR and DEX. Honestly, I knew myself to be more Luthor than Supes. I got Magneto, even when Marvel was in the closet about his ethnicity.

I was clearly not Kirk; there was no room for me in that arrogant scenery-chewing bravado. And I bristled at being Spock. Too on the nose; too explicit a denial of what I was not supposed to have: emotions, passions, vulnerability, centrality, rage. No, I will not be your eternally calm and sensible servant, trapped in a prison of emotional repression mislabeled as logic, carrying the burden of objective superiority yet overtly and obviously and voluntarily subordinate to you only because you are the real one, the human. Fuck that. (They went and did it again with Data, though Data reads as more whitebread -- more Sheldon than Howard.) (Also: clearly Zachary Quinto agrees with me here).

No, if I am to be the exile, let me be angry. Let me be charming and whimsical and madcap. If I am to be the other, if I am going to put you first, if I am going to endlessly explain and translate, if I am going to understand but never be understood, if I am going to save your ass, if I am going to be the one to forgive, to respond to violence with mercy, to find the non-zero-sum proposal, to take responsibility for things that were never my doing because otherwise none of us will survive... then let me do so from the center. Let me do so, if I must, as your whimsical indulgent uncle, who saves you because he cares about you; but not as your subordinate.

Let it, at least, be my show.

So yeah, in answer to Ahmed Ali Akbar's question, well, The Chosen comes to mind. But also Doctor Who. (Also Mork, another irrepressible alien.)

(This next bit is spoilery and probably impenetrable if you're not actually watching the show:)

One odd thing about watching Doctor Who through Noah's curation is that it's easy to lose track of where I am in the formal structure of episodes and seasons. For reading the text with the proper expectations, it rather matters whether this is the season opener, a mid-season episode, the season finale, or the Christmas special. If you're watching it in realtime, it also matters what you know, extratextually, about the cast: which companion or Doctor is wrapping up their run, who's up next. Watching decontextualized, not following the entertainment news, can lead to odd interpretations.

I caught a Whovian podcast where they brought on a passionate feminist fan-critic of the show, one of the people who had been dogging Moffat's heels, outraged at his erratic treatment of women characters.

(For the record -- let me interrupt myself here to say -- I kind of love Amy Pond, and I think her arc is kind of great both in its own terms and in how it parallels Clara's.

They both start out as relative innocents excited to ride off on adventures, to escape the prison of mundane life on earth -- ambivalent matrimonial engagement, a dead-end nanny job -- and charmed by the Doctor. They both have the superpower of sass, puncturing the Doctor's pretensions, affectionately taking the piss out of him, and therefore crucially grounding this person who always teeters on the edge between sentimental willfully naive idealism and brutal cynicism and self-hatred. They're both into the Doctor, and with a palpable sexual/romantic tension with Eleven -- which Amy is brassily overt about, and mercilessly mocks him for, while Clara matches the Doctor's tense peekaboo evasion of the topic with her own. And then their arcs bend in frutifully opposite, mirroring ways: both of them encounter the darkness and alienation implicit in the time-travelling life, and they make opposite choices. Amy gets increasingly more grounded, more connected, she stops running away, she chooses Rory, she chooses Earth. She fulfills her role of grounding the Doctor until it would cost her too much, and then she sets a limit; she doesn't choose him, she chooses the real world. (She may not remember how Old Amy came to hate him in The Girl Who Waited, but she knows it happened; her illusions are gone. She loves her imaginary friend, but she will not sacrifice her grown-up life on his altar). And Clara, after initially taking the same path -- with her early space adventures leading her out of her blocked isolation and into taking earthside risks that make her more grounded and connected (a meaningful job, a boyfriend) -- ultimately loses the boy, punts on the job, and chooses, terrifyingly, not-Earth: becoming the Doctor, renouncing humanity, running away forever.)

Anyway, nonetheless: I definitely agreed with this podcast-guest's critique of all the times that Amy's character gets summarily screwed over in the service of plot and of triggering the Doctor's emotions, the most grevious being her freaky stolen pregnancy/baby turned to soup and never getting to really grieve on-screen for her daughter's stolen childhood (and then the insult of the whole followup let's-divorce-because-you-want-children thing).

So, though, here's the thing: the feminist podcast guest fan-critic felt like the end of Season Nine redeemed a lot of these problems. Clara becomes a Doctor in her own right: River gets the happy-if-time-limited-ending she deserves, in which the Doctor really loves her back. And I get that, I do. I even kind of agree? But watching those episodes unmoored in time, not clear on where were were in the extratextual arc of the medium's formal constraints, I felt some acute feminist disappointment.

I didn't know Hell Bent was the season finale. I didn't know Jenna Coleman was leaving the show. I thought Clara and Lady Me were flying off in the diner mid-season. And I was SO EXCITED, because I thought we were in for several episodes of cross-cutting adventures, with Team Police Box and Team Diner alternately thematically parallelling, evading, foiling, collaborating, and out-of-time-order messing with each other. And maybe there are some purely Team Police Box episodes and some unrelated, purely Team Diner episodes, because why not? The show is certainly big enough to contain that.

And that would have been so great. So that even though it's kind of the perfect ending for Clara, and I have no problem with the actual diegetic events -- the framing seems like a kick in the gut. Clara becomes the Doctor... and we don't get her. We pan back to the guy, and that's that.

Similarly with River. Yes, I'm really glad she got her twenty-four years with him. Yes, I'm really glad that the bulk of her relationship, the vast majority of their time together, is with the mature doctor, the depressed one, Twelve, who has allowed himself to feel grief, who has forgiven himself for the Time War, and so has learned to stop running, and so can finally love her back. Yes, I'm really, really glad that the future Doctor that River recalls with such devotion in the Library wasn't the bossy prat she had to drag into bed and educate and bicker with and conceal hurt and aging from because he was so terrified of endings: that Eleven was really a prequel for her, just as Ten was an echo. In her timeline, before spending her last few hours with Ten, she was with Eleven for a few months of total time stretched out over a few decades... and then with Twelve for twenty-four years. And I don't even mind that it ends, that he submits to the inevitability of her death when we just saw, an episode back, that he would destroy the universe for Clara; I don't even think that debases their love by comparison. This love isn't a toxic passion; it doesn't drive him insane. If anything, the Clara thing has humbled him; now he can no longer act superior about (a very young) River holding the universe hostage by discharging her weapons at that lake in Utah, pitching everyone into the pterodactyl-Churchill-Roman-steampunk mashup-of-British-schoolchildren's-illustrated-history-books timeline. He's done the same, he's been that selfish asshole, endangering the universe because he can't let go. And now they're both going to submit to time and the rules, and grow into the accepting of endings.

Still. It doesn't really solve the problem that Charlie Jane talked about on io9. River's still someone we were introduced to as a force in her own right, an equal for the Doctor; someone who, for once, put him in the position of being the mystified neophyte who wasn't allowed to know the secrets... who then degenerated into a creature whose life was entirely wrapped up in his. And at the beginning of The Husbands of River Song we're teased with the idea that maybe this wasn't even true -- that she was playing him, that the whole "I died for your love" thing was a con she was running. Maybe affectionately; maybe it wasn't all a con; maybe she truly loved him; but that there was still another story that he didn't know, that mattered. That the real arc of River Song's life wasn't all in his shadow.

But, in the end, for all that the twenty-four-year date gives her some satisfaction and completeness, it also feels like it puts her squarely back in his shadow. Her whole life kind of was about the Doctor. Maybe it was worth it, sure.

But I kind of wanted her to be playing him. I kind of wanted her to have set up the tragic Library death thing as part of her grand con.

(I mean, she still could have. It only requires that she realized who Twelve was in the shipboard restaurant, about ten minutes before he revealed himself, just in time to reel him back in with that grand love proclamation about sunsets. Everything else about that episode still works.)

(End spoilery impenetrable bit)

I've written here before about how I fired Siob, the protagonist of my novel Resilience, promoting a secondary character (originally introduced as local color) to protagonist and renaming it The Unraveling. I don't know if it was before or after firing ver that I realized how much Siob -- immortal alien exile from a destroyed civilization, wandering the galaxy, trying to save worlds -- is the Wandering Jew.

It's only now that I'm watching the show again that I realize that that means Siob is also, of course, the Doctor.

I mean, there are some salient differences -- but those differences likely arise, as much as anything, out of my reactions to Doctor Who.

Now that the novel's done, I'm trying to rescue the good bits of Siob. I don't think ve can necessarily handle a novel, but I'm trying to give ver a novella. It's called "Reef Six".

(Mr. Chibnall, if you want me to take a crack at turning in an episode, drop me a line.)

Edited to add: It appears that I have underestimated Jewish contribution to Dr. Who's development; this article notes various levels of Jewish roots for Verity Lambert, Tom Baker, Alex Kingston (more of a genealogical discovery), and Carole Ann Ford. Wikipedia and other sources seem to dance around Verity Lambert's precise degree of Jewish identification, noting only that she was a "daughter of a Jewish accountant", which may be a bit of preserved mid-century delicacy regarding intermarriage.

Posted by benrosen at March 26, 2017 12:01 PM | Up to blog

Good morning!

I sent you an email with a question about this post on Tuesday, and just wanted to make sure you'd received that?


Posted by: Jim C. Hines at April 8, 2017 05:41 PM
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