Or why I don’t love Dr. Who.
For those who know me, it should seem like a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy a sci/fi-ish fantasy with a know-it-all protagonist, yummy-cutie sidekicks, and assorted monsters. The same way I enjoy hyphenation. But I’ve never been a Dr. Who fan. It has nothing to do with the cheesy costumes and effects – if you fall in love with the characters or their world then that stuff just becomes endearing. Think about the Horta on the original Star Trek, or the Giant Conch Shell, or the Gorn. Or the ridiculous makeup and outfit the first time we see Q on TNG. Or the Rug Tossed Over An Elephant to make a Bantha in Star Wars/A New Hope. And with the budget for the current series and the low cost of decent TV-level CGI, Dr. Who isn’t cheesy any more. Well, the masks for the aliens can be silly (which I suspect is a choice to appeal to the viewers who like that). So the former cheapness isn’t the issue at present.
Tom Baker and David Tennant are both likable, even charismatic, actors. I don’t know the names of any of the other actors who have portrayed Dr. Who. The supporting actors can be quite fun. I recall an episode with the actress who plays Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies. She had the same breathy singsong voice on Dr. Who. One of the boys from the Nanny McPhee movie is in the episode playing now. So, they certainly get professionals to work on the show.
I think the thing that bugs me is the sense that there is an unknowable tangle of rules and laws in the Dr. Who-verse, and often the rules have the appearance of being made up on the spot to solve whatever problem is at hand. There is no set of first principles that one can use to derive the rules of the Who-verse. It makes things seem too ad hoc, too deus ex machina for my tastes. Dr. Who must save the day, so the writers make up a rule that “if it’s Thursday and there’s a flatulent pig in the vicinity then the Daleks will need 12 seconds to reboot at precisely 11:48” just in time for Dr. Who to perform some necessary task.
I suspect that sort of characterization is deeply offensive to the folks who enjoy the show. And that this particular rule has never actually been used. So I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about.
I’m going to talk about rule-based worlds and bureaucratic worlds in a moment, so let me describe the distinction I intend. A rule-based world is much like our natural world. There are laws that apply and are inescapable. These worlds are rational. Magical worlds are also usually rule based, though the laws of our physics are superceded by the supernatural laws when the appropriate conditions are met. Matter and energy are not always conserved. Bureaucratic worlds are nominally rule-based worlds, but the motivations of the characters and the relevant structure of the world is controlled by an enforcer class. A Bureaucracy. In bureaucratic worlds, rules can be gotten around even when violated. And rules (or the unpleasant consequences of rule-breaking) can be invoked when it’s not fair or appropriate. These worlds are not rational and are usually pernicious for anyone of a non-conforming disposition. Usually, bureaucratic systems exist in rule-based natural worlds. There is a bureaucracy in the Harry Potter world, though it functions more as a character or tar-baby, not as the antagonist/world system.
Lots of great fiction has been set in bureaucratic worlds. Most of the blindly bureaucratic worlds of fiction have similar organizing principles: the preservation of power and the suppression of the individual. 1984, Brazil, We, The Trial (to a distant and lesser extent with regards to the preservation of power), V, and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast are all examples of this sort of thing. In Gormenghast the rituals have become so baroque, convoluted, and obscure that the initial function of preserving the power of the Groan’s seems to have little to do with the as-presented rituals. But we are told that demonstrating and solidifying the Groan’s power was the impetus for them.
Those worlds and their stories can be compelling, whether the protagonist is a hero or a ground-down everyman. These are modern equivalents of the Prometheus story, or stories of the gods punishing hubris. Stay a small cog, eat your thin gruel. Sometimes Prometheus fights back and wins his liberty, sometimes he gets to experience unanaesthetized dentistry. Heroism and its sacrifices versus the safety of anonymity in an inimical world. Distant gods with their own agendas and a desire for appeasement are replaced by distant human tyrants with a desire for control and a need to see obedience demonstrated. These are common experiences throughout the history of humanity and it is completely reasonable, healthy, and affirming that we tell stories about this.
As a contrast, horror usually takes place in a rule-based world. If you come near Michael Myers or Jigsaw, very unpleasant things are certain to happen to you. If a zombie bites you, you will lose your humanity and join them. The rules can be quite simple. No higher power may be needed or implied by these rules. Often a resourceful person can avoid invoking these rules and falling victim to them. But not always. Especially if you are foolish enough to camp in a remote location, engage in pre-marital sex, or fall asleep when you’ve been warned not to.
The world of Dr. Who does not seem to have gods or governments trying to keep Tom Sawyer down. I would not characterize it as a bureaucratic world. But there are lots of rules. So is it a rule-based world? Not in any axiom-and-postulates way that I can detect. It is more like a D-n-D game where the dungeon master gets to invent rules that will ensure whatever outcome she wants. Both the bureaucratic and rule-based worlds are game-like. In a game-like world there’s a system – either of men or laws – and one interacts with that. I don’t have the sense of any system in Dr. Who. My feeling about the Who-verse is summed up in this dialogue from Through The Looking Glass:
When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
But it’s a “wouldn’t it be great if” set of stories. And because Dr. Who is a Time Lord, the stories don’t need to be consistent. One could think of the Dr. Who world as a toy-like, as compared to a game-like. One day the toy is a truck carrying sweaters, the next day it is a dragon guarding a kitten. And there’s a second toy, one day it’s a giant pair of scissors trying to cut up the sweaters, the next day it is a kitten-eating gnome trying to get past the dragon. I suppose the Platonic Essences of the toys are unchanged, but the appearances are completely mutable.
This isn’t bad or wrong, it’s just the world of Dr. Who. I have a hard time feeling suspence, or suspending disbelief in this scenario. Dr. Who will always invent a new rule, and be able to get the paperwork completed in time for the permit issued needed to rescue humanity.
This is somehow different from scifi where reality is controlled by a person or entity or group. Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven or The Matrix have an internal logic and a set of meta-rules, even if the reality of the world can be changed. These are still game-like, and not toy-like.
Lots of people enjoy imagination-provoking toys and entertainment, in addition to enjoying games. I think the Hitchhiker’s Guide books are more whimsical and toy-like than game-like. I enjoyed the early Sim games – SimCity and SimEarth. They were both toy-like. I enjoy building Lego robots – a very toy-like activity. So it’s not the toyishness of Dr. Who that keeps me from becoming a fan, but we’re getting warm.
One problem I have with the series is that it feels like someone else’s toy and I’m supposed to watch them play with it. I have a similar feeling about the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. Feeling excluded isn’t really something one wants in entertainment. Now, this cannot be a common reaction – otherwise Dr. Who would not keep getting renewed, would not have such a huge fan base. He wouldn’t be loved by folks whose work I enjoy: Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Stephen Fry. My reaction to the show is a lot like my reaction to playing cops and robbers with another kid who continuously invents invisible shields and extra lives and “nuh-uh, you missed” even when the gun is held to his temple. If that’s how things are going to go, then I’m off to do something else. And yet, lots of folks are perfectly happy to join in the fun.
Am I adverse to whimsy? That’s a big part of the Hitchhiker books, and I’ve mentioned I feel excluded from that world as well. I don’t think I’m whimsy-adverse. I loved Edward Scissorhands, and Wizard of Oz, and Pushing Daisies and Time Bandits, and many others. So we have yet another “that’s not quite it.”
Let’s see if I can come up with a cogent explanation for why I don’t love Dr. Who. A big part of it is in the Humpty Dumpty quote: “The question is which is to be the master.” I realize that the writer is always the ultimate master in a story. In fact, there’s an amusing short blog post about how writers like Dr. Who and Computer Programmers like Star Trek. I hope that’s not the real answer. Then I’ll never write that novel! But with Dr. Who the power of the writer just seems too evident, too capricious, and too much not me. It’s his toy and I can watch him play with it – or not. I’m just on the outside looking in.
Can that ever change? I think it is certainly possible. I gave the David Tennant version of the series several viewings and just didn’t want to join the party. Perhaps another time. I actually kinda hope so, I’ve heard that fun can be had. I’ll let you know if things change.
I just haven’t found a way to make that sort of thing the sort of thing that I like.