Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Regiment of Monstrous Doctors

Doctor Who

Jodie Whittakers first promo photos put me in mind of Peter Davidson. I think it's the blond, slightly floppy hair. Davidsons Doctor is great. I love his vulnerability, his uncertainty, nervousness. Could the writers possibly dare put these character traits into the form of a woman? I wonder. Will she umm and aah, and pull a packet of jelly-babies out? Like Tom Baker did.  Or even gasp wide eyed and breathless at her own short-sightedness like McGann. Or is she doomed to a fate of stoically earnest competence, with some occasional manic grins, weighed down by heavy expectations like Eccleston.  I hope the clock has been reset, this complete regeneration cycle (that's the next 12 Doctors) stays female, and I hope like the last 12 Doctors, that we get a diversity of characters, that we get a diversity of writers and approaches, that all those expectations of what a female Doctor could be don't have only one chance to be met.

Classic Who was always a kids show with elements of education, adventure, sci-fi and kooky weirdness bereft of budget.   New Who moved towards the spectacular, the romantic, increasingly tear-jerk ridden story lines, like those cloyingly sentimental banking adverts desperate to generate cultural capital and put on a human face after bankrupting the financial system. Infantile stories about returning lost wooly jumpers and slow motion versions of Warhorse over a soundtrack stolen from some plonky acoustic cover of a vaguely nostalgic pop-song. Doctor Who degenerated into an endless twee department store chain Christmas advert with an Dickensian ghost which turns out to be yet another lone Dalek hiding under a tea stained bed sheet, defeated by hot butter dripping from freshly toasted crumpets messing up the aliens wiring.

And then the bombast. The pontification. The soliloquies. No longer there to solve the problem of the week, a weird alien in a quarry in Essex or the invasion of a warehouse by vikings, the Doctor now seems to has to save the whole universe. No. Not just the universe, but all of space and time itself - as if the cosmic balance itself were embedded in The Doctor or otherwise a Companion. Like some kind of Gallifreyan Aslan on the Stone Table, saviour of humanity in all its multifarious flavours through unleashing midiclorian timelord dna particle whatsit hand-wavey timey-wimey deep magic bunkum stuff. One almost wills Erekose to turn up and drive his black sword through him to put an end to this pretentious dishevelled scone eating tyranny.

Then there's the horror. The horror. No doubt fuelled by swelling fx budgets, increasingly visual, and decidedly adult orientated, while supported by scripts that were increasingly verbose and conceptually infantile. Was Waters of Mars really supposed to be a family show?

Family evening TV

That's not "hide behind the sofa, there's a dustbin with a sink plunger coming", it's George A. Romero  (may he rest in peace) zombie horror, but without the subtlety, message or intelligence to back it up. Russell T. Davis can pontificate about childhood scares all he likes, he's not a parent. I'm not letting my kids go anywhere near that, any more than I would let them near my vintage VHS collection of zombie films. And it's not just Waters of Mars, it's the Weeping Angels with their strobe-lights and flashing teeth,  and countless other monsters where horror-tropes stepped over the invisible force-feild of appropriate. Then there is the adult relationship dross.

Young kids have no need for stories about boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, or girlfriend-girlfriend and boyfriend-boyfriend for that matter. Bills constant "Nah. I don't do boys" refrain. So what? It doesn't matter love, 10 year olds could not care less. And if they did, they'd pick up on the cues. Show, don't tell. Think about it. Children of my generation all knew Hank had a thing for Diane. We all knew that the Scooby Gang were a polyamorous dog-share club. We all vaguely worried how The Smurfs might go forth and multiply, but were happy for the little blue guys anyway. The stories didn't have to tell us these things, the characters didn't need to say it. We were smart kids. We knew what was going on, we could read the signs. I struggle to imagine who this stuff is really aimed at, too sentimental and thinly written for adults. Too gruesome and horrific for kids. Doctor Who seems to have lost its way, and on it's way, kept losing it's audience.

As Laurie Penny rightly wrote in the New Statesman: "Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room."  In 2017, it has long been recognised that girls are out-performing boys academically, that out-thinking everyone else in the room is, in schools across the country, what girls do  - strangely like Susan in An Unearthly Child. Making The Doctor a girl doesn't feel like a radical move, it's just recalibrating to adequately describe the status quo.

Nina and the Neurons

Do You Know? Maddie Moate
Or yes indeed, we can take our patented gender-o-meter to the Cbeebies science page:  and you'll see it is dominated by images of women. My gender-o-meter counts 4 males. Two of those are Messy Monster, who is a kind of sock-eating Totoro-rabbit (Okido magazine is a great early years science magazine by the way) the other two are the same man. There are 9 images of females,  6 different people. None of the males appear independently of a female, whereas several of the females appear unaccompanied. None of the males are looking at, or engaging with the viewer.  My gender-o-meter is indicating a very strong feminine bias. If representation and gendered self-image matter (and I'm not completely convinced they do at the target age group in question) then girls in the early years demographic are being well served.

Assuming we're not facing a post-apocalyptic return to the dark ages and some form of eternal agrarian hell where the UKs economy reliant on jam exports, there is a societal problem when our best and brightest (who happen to be girls) are turned off the science, engineering and technology fields. Boys are being failed by the system, so we're going to expect girls to pick up the slack in the employment market. Remember, the BBC is pretty much a government agency, and it has a job to do. Arguably, a female Doctor Who - the central character in a science fiction show aimed at a higher age-range than Nina and Maddie, might just bridge the gap and keep girls inspired by science.

Except, despite popular ignorance, Doctor Who isn't really science fiction and The Doctor doesn't really do science or engineering or technology. Doctor Who does a fantastic job of showing humanity, wisdom, compassion and kindness - so uncommon for a male protagonist - but then swiftly let's it down with emotional shouting, martyr-complexes and deus-ex-machina plotlines. A man-sized fairy running around with a magic wand called a 'sonic screwdriver' that solves all his problems, whilst travelling in a TARDIS that he can't fix properly which gains and loses powers as required by the storyline with no recourse to logic, technology or physics. Magic in the garb of pseudo-science. Strangely not unlike how beauty products are marketed, here comes the science bit.

If we want a Doctor Who that really lives up to it's potential, then the series needs to have Science Fiction, the proper-stuff, with ideas and concepts about science at the very heart of its storytelling. Not fantasy and self-absorbed soap operatic melodrama in sci-fi drag. Perhaps I am asking too much. TV, and media people in general aren't great at communicating science, beyond the Twilight Zone, it's difficult to think of proper original sci-fi on TV that wasn't straight adaptation (yes, space opera and space westerns abound). The Science Museum and the Wellcome trust do great curational work, but transforming that into engaging narrative takes a different skillset.  Sophie Dauvois and Rachel Ortas at Okido do great work for early years, could they up their game to a pre-teen audience? Where's Maggie Philbin when we need her? Derek Meddings modelling the inspiring mega-engineering feats of the Thunderbirds? Hard science fiction hasn't been in vogue for a long time.  It's hard to imagine where the talent pool to write and direct a decent Doctor Who would come from.

Interestingly the new 'show-runner' Chris Chibnall, previous work in the Doctor Who universe on the admittedly more adult orientated Torchwood gave us this:

Caroline Chikezie as Cyberwoman
I have zero problems with afrofuturist gynoids in metallic spiderweb swimsuits and fetish hoods. Zero.  But I'm a  happily married 40-something year old bloke with a stack of vintage Heavy Metal comics in the loft, which, because I'm not completely irresponsible, I don't let my children read, yet. But we do know that at least once, when pondering the question "what happens when high technology and the feminine meet", Chris wasn't afraid to answer that question by putting a sexy woman in silver latex underwear on screen. Chris also made Broadchurch, which was a rainsoaked teary eyed, mopey soap-opera dressed up as a police procedural. Unfortunately none of this bodes well for a strong, family orientated, feminist, science led adventure programme.

Then to return to my earlier point in space-time. Girls are currently ahead academically, and a fictional heroine who represents their triumphs is great. A wonderful thing, reflective of where we are. A heroine who out-smarts, and displays their humanity, questioning and tolerance as well as their understanding and knowledge.  But I can't help but feel for the boys who getting left behind, the boys who go on to commit knife crime, the boys who will grow up to join the largest demographic at risk of suicide and all the issues that suggests. The boys who've been failed by the magic Doctor, who can just wave problems away with his magic wand rather than solve them. The boys who get a Spider-man who is granted a hand up the superhero-career ladder from his weapons grade father-replacement figure at Stark Inc. rather than struggle through life through hard work and application, and achieve on his own merits. Boys whose media landscape only features fictional male heroes who solve problems with their fists, their bolt-guns, their laser-swords. It is no wonder that working class white boys are the demographic who are achieving least academically.

And then the media explodes, railing against any criticism of the changing of the gender of a major character that's not only been on screen since 1963 but provides a fictional role-model that studiously avoids worst aspects of 'toxic masculinity' (although the Doctors mansplaining was off the charts) with calls of 'petulant man-babies', gloating over 'man tears', characterising people who dared voice dissent as 'creatures born to hate'. As if such childish hyperbole is any way to speak of people whose emotions and culture and experiences you do not share and do not understand.

Maybe the girls really do need The Doctor after all.


  1. Articles like this are why I follow your blog. Totally spot on on all counts.

    1. Ah. Glad you enjoyed it - good to know it's not just me!

  2. I do think that more scientific, unpredictable older Doctors are better than the toy boy/eye candy ones #10 was vain enough to stop a regeneration and cause metacrisis.... if you're going to regenerate do it!!, #11 was really disorganised and hyperactive he couldn't sit still. When #12 came along he'd got more sense was scientific about things telling people to Google things whike being really cool in attitude a thing the others wanted to be but never were.

    1. Yeah. Interesting that you locate notions of science as a character trait of the doctor, rather than the plot.

      As a tiny example, in The Empress of Mars - Bill, the Doctor and Nardole exit the Tardis in space suits, see a fire Bill and Nardol explain the need for oxygen to make fire, pull their space helmets off. The Doctor is clueless about 'basic physics' and Bill is casually dismissive of her knowledge. We are given a multitude of examples where the Tardis establishes safe atmospheric conditions, if we had a consistent technological model (sci-fi) for the Tardis, rather than a magical story-driven one (fantasy), this entire scene would be redundant. It's also redundant in that it makes no difference to the outcome of the plot or story at all. 'Science' is shown to be perfunctory, redundant, something the main protagonist does not care about, and an ultimately pointless exercise. The real dilemma being solved by the characters adhering to conservative gender roles - Bill convincing the Ice Warrior Empress - because women only listen to other women, and the redemption of a males honour through adherence to a warrior code, because men aren't allowed to be anything but warriors - something The Doctor himself alludes to "that's my problem, I think too much like a Warrior". We don't need any more male-warrior stereotypes.

      The scene where the British Captain attempts to kidnap the Empress so she can fix the Ice Warriors spaceship. We are expected to accept that she would just know how to do this, because in some way 'engineering knowledge' is innate to the species, or commonplace or easily obtained. It isn't either. You wouldn't kidnap Angela Merkle to fix your Mercedez-Benz, no you'd have to find a properly trained car mechanic or Ice Warrior engineer.

      It illustrates how STEM knowledge is produced and consumed within the fictional framework, in ways that devalues it's significance, the economies of knowledge and learning are glossed over in favour of gross essentialism, it sets hugely unrealistic - and to my mind detrimental - expectations about how easy, inconsequential STEM is.

  3. Hey, I didn't know you were a big science advocate, glad to know we have another thing in common. My boy is just about to start school (but he's going to be the youngest in his year!) I've been teaching him science for the last year. He understands what atoms are, evolution, how his body works etc and he's not even 4.

    Maddie from "do you know" is one of his idols. As you say I'm not even sure gender matters in this context, he pretends to be her a lot explaining how things are made to me, lol.

    I'm entirely indifferent to Dr Who, I've never even seen any "modern" ones. I can't say I've followed the reactions to the new doctor but I can predict how it's gone....

    Oh as an aside, Henry has really long blonde hair and he's constantly being told he's a "pretty girl" by strangers....I've taught him to say "don't you know boys can have long hair too?" :)

    1. Didn't realise I was a science advocate! Guess I am. Sounds like Harrys got off to a great start, with the hair and the science. lol! School already? Time flies by. Gosh. It's a big step, and school has changed incredibly since I were a lad, for the better I think.

      Maybe we have Maddie in part to blame for the rise in 'kidsplaining' lol! But yes, I don't think representational issues matter until later in life.

      Yep, female Doctor Who is a bloodbath, can't say nuanced viewpoints or discussion have been particularly on show. Even this little post has been criticised for not 'taking sides properly' (my paraphrase). But social media has proved itself to be little more than poorly scripted absurdist theatre.

      This is a great example Radio Times. Condescending tone, deriding and attacking others that think might hold different views. Then it goes and draws comparisons between female representations in crime drama and childrens fantasy, as if these distinct genres are targeted at the same audiences. Perhaps this is telling in why Doctor Who has become a childish adult entertainment rather than a grown-up entertainment for children. Meanwhile in the real world, childrens TV Drama abounds with female leads, Tracey Beaker, Worst Witch, Hetty Feather, Harriets Army even the Who spin off Sarah Jane Adventures - all female leads.

      It's not dissimilar to the hype about feminism breaking into the mainstream around the recent adaptation of Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, which has been institutionalised as part of the A'level English Literature syllabus since the 1990s, and had big screen version, by Harold bloody Pinter. The feminist commentariat seem perpetually stuck in the 1970s, fighting ghosts of patriarchal oppression. Creating controversy, and pretend something revolutionary is going on in order to feed the ratings machine. A wilful atrophy of cultural memory.

      Oops I've gone off on one again!

    2. I'm not academically or indeed intellectually equipped to argue the nuances of modern feminism I'm afraid but anyone who gives more than half a shit about science is an advocate in my book. I feel like I'm living in the land of crystals, homeopathy and chakras sometimes....

    3. ha I'll save the screed about the tyranny of youth and beauty c/w Big Finish, Colin Bakers Doctor and Evlyn Smythe for another time then ;-)

      Crystals, homeopathy and chakras? Well I like those stories, about angels, unicorns and elves, but science is real.

      ... incoming!

  4. To the point you raise in your first paragraph ummmmmm what about Georgia Moffett? :-)

    1. I don't know. Certainly Jennys blond hair, brown eyes seems to connect her to both Davidson and Whittakers doctors. I liked the character, she seemed fun and destined for a spin off series, which she will soon be getting from Big Finish - about 8 years too late. She came across as more of an action-hero, maybe suited to Indiana Jones kind of escapades. For fannish speculation - are we going to see the action hero daughter as companion to the scientist-magician mother? "Your not my muvva" "Yes I am!" Could work. Throw K9 into the mix, "Did you forget to recharge the dog again?" Fix up the other issues and I'm sold!

  5. You can't get more connected to Davidson than being his daughter (and more connected to the Doctor than being the daughter of one and wife of another).

    1. Yes, the actress is related to the actor. But what point are you trying to make?

  6. Great take on the whole situation, I hasn't even thought of the idea of the gender "locking" for 12 regenerations but I like it!

  7. I'm a little bit late,surprising no one, but damn that was a fine read. The way you cut through the bloat and get to the bone is impressive and your sharp wit is a delight.

    1. Always welcome, it's good to know you enjoyed the piece. Thank you.