Friday, May 20, 2011

Doctor Who and the Seductiveness of Peter Pans

This year, I've begun to involve myself in the cultural spectacular that is the 2005-present BBC serial, Doctor Who. I saw my first episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, in the late fall, and this semester I've been catching up on all things Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith.

Perhaps more important than the actors who play the Doctor are the men (because it does appear to be almost exclusively men, albeit genius ones) who write him. I came to the series --after many years of friends suggesting I'd like it-- finally because of two fellows named Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, staff writers for Who but also the joint creators of a little piece of glory called Sherlock, which I adored.

And Neil Gaiman, an author any fantasy fan worth her salt knows from his novels, penned his first episode this season, and it was the most satisfying hour of TV I've ever watched. The things these people are writing are incomprehensibly beautiful and astonishingly addictive. But why? What is it about a science fiction show for children that appeals so much to so many?

It's hard to explain to people who've never sat through endless hours of Whovian wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey storytelling. I've heard many an enlightened adult complain that the stories are just too convoluted, the effects just too crummy, the characters undeniably silly. Hell, I was one of them.

Here's my short list of what makes Doctor Who compelling:

1. The Peter Pan Appeal

There will always be something sublime about the Peter Pan story: a boyish misfit with a touch of supernatural charm who whisks away a girl (and they are usually women) away from her everyday normalcy to travel through the night sky. Under his guidance, she becomes her own heroine in fantastical adventures she could barely have dreamed up had she stayed home. The allure of travel with the Doctor alleviates the agony and boredom which plague "conventional" lives for these companions, in much the same way Peter rescued Wendy from "having to grow up." In fact, most of the Doctor's companions have to eventually return to a permutation of their old lives once the adventures are over. The most excruciating example, if you've seen the fourth series, is Donna Noble, whose very memories of time spent with the Doctor must literally be sacrificed to save her life. In order to return to normalcy, Donna has to forget everything she saw and experienced in the vast reaches of the universe. It's painfully reminiscent of the final scene in Peter Pan when Wendy is too old to go back to Never Never Land.

All of the Freudian baggage of J.M. Barrie's original children's story is encoded in Doctor Who's DNA. The Doctor, like Peter, can never "grow up" -- that is, by virtue of his nature (and design of the show), he can never stop traveling space and time, can never settle down, and most certainly can never reciprocate the love and occasional lust of nearly every companion who spends time in the TARDIS. Most entertainment relies, either in part or in whole, on some potent unresolved sexual tension, and with the Doctor, it's part and parcel of his makeup. He will always be charming, his companions (and the audience) will always fall in love with him, and that element will always be frustrated. It keeps people coming back for more, but beyond that, it makes him untouchable in a very God-like way...

2. The Doctor is God for the Godless

The Dalai Lama said, "Some people automatically associate morality and altruism with a religious vision of the world. But I believe it is a mistake to think that morality is an attribute only of religion. We can imagine two types of spirituality: one tied to religion, while the other arises spontaneously in the human heart as an expression of love for our neighbors and a desire to do them good."

At its core, Doctor Who is about secular humanism. The Doctor saves worlds, aliens, and-- most often-- humans, again and again from torture and annihilation and fates dubbed "worse than death." Why does he do it? There's no man in the sky telling him what to do: he IS the man in the sky, and it's HIS mercy the villains must rely upon. The Doctor decides who lives and who dies, but he usually tries to save everyone. He tries his best not to prioritize. The people who stand with him are nearly as important as the people who don't. He inexplicably loves all life forms and reacts to them with a wonder not uncommon to children but totally without any of their human cruelty. He eschews violence, but violence is sometimes necessary when violent folks have brought it upon themselves.

Most importantly, the show is a recklessly optimistic bastion of hope in a time when we human race are seemingly lacking in innate goodwill. The Doctor trusts, saves, spares, and inspires. His adventures in time and space, not only into the past but often many hundreds of years into the future, connote a belief that the world is not ending and the universe is not finite. Alongside this miraculous conception of our contemporary world, which in reality seems so often to be at the brink itself, human death becomes what it was always meant to be: a small but important part of the greater, exquisite whole.

Because people do die in Doctor Who. Adults, children, aliens-- no one is immune. This isn't some fantasy whereby the ailments of reality are discarded in favor of blissful delusion; it's the great kind of science fiction wherein our very real problems and concerns are elevated to poetry, opera, and art. The great and trivial struggles of being alive are cast into sharp relief when an entire species, planet, solar system, or the entire history of time are threatened. We see, through the Doctor's eyes, what becomes important. Love isn't the ultimate savior, although it takes a healthy dose of kindness and caring-- industriousness and creativity are just as vital when it comes to saving the universe(s). Doctor Who shows us the qualities it takes to survive and thrive in an unkind world, and some surprising trends emerge. Generosity is prized, as is remorse. (Someone more fluent in history could write a damn fine thesis on how this relates to the history of Britain-as-imperial-power and her subsequent politics.) But most often, the Doctor acts out of a place of intelligence and warmth. As Amy Pond says, "You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets unless there's children crying."

3. Nothing Is Ever Irrevocable... And the Things that Are Have Good Reasons

In Doctor Who, the things that are really, really bad (the Holocaust, slavery) are either glossed over or, if alluded to, the Doctor is able to explain why he can't interfere with some vague monologue about how some things are so big and so key to time that he can't mess with them. There are things even the Doctor can't change-- not actually because he can't, but because he won't. There is some greater purpose that, while never totally explained, we accept as viewers because it's comforting to be told by a 900-year-old that our problems are small but not insignificant in the grand scheme.

Meanwhile, at least half of the Doctor Who episodes I've seen involve him landing somewhere in the past and rectifying some minor wrong or explaining a quirk of history in a cockamamie way-- delightful or twee, depending usually on the writing. (There's one episode involving Shakespeare that includes one of my favorite lines. After being flirted with by the Bard himself, the Tenth Doctor mutters, "Fifty-two academics just punched the air." Yes, we did.)

Watch Doctor Who long enough, and you start to believe your own mistakes and regrets are mere casualties of time. My boyfriend told me with complete sincerity that he occasionally believes he can go back and correct past wrongs if he's been watching Doctor Who too much, and I can't say it's irrational. The conceit appeals to that little part of all of us that secretly believes there's something fantastical out there whose sole purpose is to fix our lives for us. It's the part of us that wants to surrender control.

Doctor Who is a show for children, an age that every adult alive has lived through, for better or worse. Sometimes, watching the show sends the same shiver of delight down your spine that picking up a good book did when you were nine years old-- but t
he reading recommendations you get as an adult are usually for novels and nonfiction bestsellers, not fantasy serials. We speak of the Star Wars novelizations in ashamed, hushed voices, or joke about the camp quality of vampire stories written for adult audiences. There just aren't that many quality book series for adults the way there are for kids; we don't get to return to our favorite characters the way we used to, and the fictional world is less a stable home than a series of nice hotels (or conceptual art-themed motels, Mr. Eggers).

The greatest series is arguably now televised, because with Doctor Who, there's no compromise. You're accepting the desire to be entertained at face value, and getting more. The ability to return to that universe week after week is something special. I don't think the community fostered by Doctor Who is frivolous or superficial. I think it's an opportunity to connect in an age of cultural fragmentation. I don't think any artistic output is frivolous or superficial if we engage with it in the same spirit as we engage with history or the news. It's just as telling.

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