It is my lofty ambition to occasionally write about things other than Doctor Who on this blog. I know. Dream big. But the more I watch and read about the show, the more fascinating it becomes, the more I learn, and the more I find myself having to say. So, to quote another obsession of mine, today is not that day.
Today I feel like ranting against The Sunday Times and the larger philosophical position they represent. Well, not so much philosophy as a mostly sloppy and reflexive stream of mean-spirited and click-baiting assertions.
You see, The Sunday Times boasts the self-described “first interview” with the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi (never mind this interview, or this one). I’ll be responding to specific quotes from the article, so before reading my interpretation the entire article can be read on the Blogtor Who website.
First off, can I just express my distaste for these interviewers who try to psychoanalyze the body language of the interviewee? I admit that’s not so much a defensible critical opinion as a pet peeve, but still. “His skin is translucent with wonderment. He’s hugging his ribs nostalgically…When I ask how it felt on his first day on set, his eyes mist up.” Ugh.
The interviewer (whose name is Matt Rudd — let’s name names, here) starts his interview with a hard-hitting journalistic curveball: “Are Daleks better than Cybermen?” He finds himself unable to understand Capaldi’s answer, remarking offhandedly that Capaldi never answered his question. Actually, obliquely, he did: He says it depends on the type of Cybermen you’re talking about. He prefers the Mondasian Cybermen, the original Cybermen from the William Hartnell swansong “The Tenth Planet,” to the alternate-universe Cybermen of the reboot. Hence, the Daleks must lie somewhere in-between. Simple logic.
All of this is the kind of innocent ignorance the media displays when discussing things they don’t really care about: Hardly malicious and not worth the blog rant I’m currently composing. There are specific places Rudd gives voice to some troubling tendencies within and without the Doctor Who community.
Let’s start with the issue of Capaldi’s age. I’m not actually sure who Rudd expresses more contempt for: The old or the young. The young get called out more blatantly: He calls the progressively younger New Who Doctors “ever-younger lunchbox candy.” Apparently the plot lines have regressed with them, “much to the chagrin of die-hard Whovians,” and compares recent story lines to Twilight. “Following the age trajectory,” he reasons, “the next Doctor would have been 23, and all would have been lost.” Heaven forbid.
This is all painfully reminiscent of the recent Slate article admonishing Young Adult literature and those who read it. Apparently the age of the lead actor directly correlates to the nutritional value of the meal being offered. Although even Rudd seems confused about his own imposed boundaries – exactly how young is too young? He includes Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston in the list 0f “ever-younger” new Doctors, although Eccleston (41 at the time he played the part) was about the same age as perennial favorite Classic Doctor Tom Baker (40). Not to mention Classic Doctor Peter Davison who, at 29, was the youngest Doctor ever until Matt Smith (26) took the title from him, and yet remained a fan favorite. In fact, there was a time at which both Baker and Davison were the youngest Doctors ever. Smith should be the most relevant case-study here. Steven Moffat was accused of appealing to the “Twilight demographic” way back upon Smith’s casting. The critical and popular acclaim he achieved during Smith’s four-year tenure should have put these notions that age corresponds to quality to rest. Instead, his relative youth has made him a target of unwarranted criticism at the end as well as the beginning of his tenure.
Speaking of the Twilight demographic, apparently that’s what we’ve been enjoying for the last four years, in any case. “Die-hard Whovians” can be an opinionated and combative bunch, and clearly there is no unanimous opinion about the quality and/or ethics of the Steven Moffat era, but does anyone really think the stories under his reign have anything at all in common with Twilight? I don’t mean that as a disparagement against Twilight – I’m genuinely asking. For that matter, why are we still going out of our way to insult Twilight at every turn and for no reason? Because this is, again, lazy journalistic shorthand for trashy YA – the kind of stuff we should be embarrassed for enjoying. It doesn’t actually matter that the two narratives are nothing alike. What matters is their young and good-looking leads, the fact that both are “genre” and aimed at young audiences, and the supposed sappiness of their romantic content.
Let’s come back to the troubling gender issues buried in there in a minute. Directly after his disparaging remarks about the previous Doctors’ ages, Rudd then digresses into wondering what else the Doctor could have been – a woman? black? – leaving the reader to fill in the train of thought that these “terribly twenty-first century” (translate: politically correct) options would have been similarly disastrous developments for the beloved character. Rudd’s assertion that “Capaldi comes at a good time for the program” implies that his “geriatric” (Rudd’s word) male whiteness has saved the program from the edge of doom. He is here to rescue us from anything progressive, and return us to a more Classical vision of what Doctor Who should be.**
On the word “geriatric”: For all Rudd’s dismissal of the youthful Doctors, he seems equally concerned that Capaldi might keel over from old age at any moment. He notes that Capaldi comes into the room “hugging his ribs like he’s been fighting Daleks since January” and worries that he’s been “injured” on the job. “It won’t do either of us or the BBC’s multimillion-pound franchise any good if he needs to regenerate before he’s even begun,” he snarks, and reminds us that “he’s old enough that the BBC has a chiropractor on speed dial.” A little while later, he notes that at one point Capaldi laughs so hard “that he starts struggling for air. Luckily, Capaldi “regains control…just at the point when [Rudd is] thinking [he] should call for help.” Though he never outright says it, the impression given is one of doubt about Capaldi’s physical stamina, which in turn suggests doubt about Capaldi’s fitness for the physically demanding role. Given that the ages 23 through 55 are apparently all wrong for the part, I’m not sure what we’re left with.
Getting back to the biggest elephant in the room, let’s look at the facts. Yes, the rebooted Doctor Who has more openly included emotional and romantic content. What Rudd condemns (and claims that all “die-hard Whovians” object to as well) is the “flirting and smooching…the will-they, won’t-they dynamic between the Doctor and his sidekick[s].” Starting from the beginning of the reboot, there was certainly genuine affection and even attraction between the Doctor and Rose. However, this relationship remained chaste, mostly in subtext, hardly ever admitted out loud. Of three on-screen kisses, none were straightforward romantic “smooches” – all included some extenuating circumstances other than the desire on the parts of the characters to be sexual. It’s true that some fans do disapprove of Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor, but many others have seen Martha as a positive example of a strong woman who chooses to go her own way and not be a victim. She remains, after all, the only New Who companion to willingly leave the Doctor. Also, there is the little fact that her romance with the Doctor was, ahem, unrequited. With Donna, writer Russell T Davies intentionally pulled back on the sexual tension to create another but no less compelling type of chemistry: That of best friends.
Moving on to Steven Moffat, the “smooching and flirting” has continued to be infrequent and fairly oblique. Amy Pond’s crush on the Doctor is short-lived, and her romance with fiancee-then-husband Rory is foregrounded. The Doctor’s only committed on-screen relationship with River Song culminates in, as Moffat points out, the only time in the history of the show that the Doctor has kissed someone with “lustful intent.” While I will admit that the flirting between the Doctor and current companion Clara has been at times awkward and even inscrutable, these moments have been fairly rare as well as mostly playful and superficial. Rudd and the fans he speaks for may not like these instances of flirtation and romance, but never have they been the main focus of any episodes, and the implication they have overwhelmed the program is simply ludicrous.
Even if all of this weren’t true, I can’t help but resent the implication that any of this has to be apologized for. Russell Davies has rightly called out fans who complain of the so-called “soapy content” in Doctor Who: “I can understand where it’s coming from, but it doesn’t mean I like where it’s coming from. You are looking at a major character in his own show that’s on for 50 years and you’re denying him a full life.” To complain that things like romance, sexuality, and kissing have entered a beloved sci-fi franchise seems awfully chauvinist. Even the little boy in The Princess Bride, who whines at the beginning about the adventure yarn being merely “a kissing book,” grows out of this immaturity at the end and comes to accept the romance as part of the richness and variety of the story. Blogger Philip Sandifer pointed out a similar fan impulse when he criticized “die-hard Whovians'” love of the more Classically-reminiscent series 2 episode “The Impossible Planet”:
For any fan who’d been sitting around for fourteen months complaining bitterly that Doctor Who wasn’t like Doctor Who, this was a revelation. Notably, even its emotional content is toned down – a couple scenes of the Doctor and Rose talking about what they’ll do now that they’re trapped in this time and place in the first episode, and a pair of muted lines in the second are the only places that those pesky emotions creep in.
And those “pesky emotions” are the hallmark of the new series. The fan-tendency to which Rudd gives voice is one that discards emotional New Who in favor of serious Classic Who. This is why Christopher Eccleston (41) is lumped together with the Twilight crowd while Tom Baker (40) isn’t: Because Eccleston is a part of New Who while Tom Baker is Classic. Thank God Saint Capaldi is here to save us all and bring us back to our senses and get back to the real business of “blow[ing] a lot of shit up.”
This is in here, of course, a tacit dismissal of the recent influx of new fans, many of whom have been young and (shocker) female. You know – the Twilight demographic. When thought about for any length of time, the logic here is blatantly misogynistic and equally ridiculous. Blogger Ivan Kirby tweeted his “bemuse[ment at] journalists writing about Capaldi’s ‘no flirting’ as if previous Doctor Who series were like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.” The implicit critique is that Doctor Who has been hijacked by the juvenile, silly fan-girls, the Tumblr crowd. This is part of an ongoing debate in the larger cult/genre/geek community about how to integrate diversity into their sandboxes. L.B. Gale gave a great defense behalf of Doctor Who‘s fan-girls in the wake of Peter Capaldi’s casting, noting how the vitriol spewed at female fans was in extreme disproportion to their supposed offenses. She quotes one comment which sums up this hateful attitude: “Best thing about the new Doctor, the annoying fan-girl cess pool is finally gone.” The Sunday Times wants us to agree. “We were one nibble short of a hickey,” Rudd claims. Is this guy serious? By asserting that all “die-hard Whovians” are ready for a break in the emotional and romantic content, Rudd states plainly who are the real “die-hard Whovians.”
None of this is helped by the absolute way in which Capaldi’s quotes are presented. I am reluctant to indict Capaldi here: I am pretty confident in believing that Capaldi — a talented actor and writer and dedicated fan of the show — knows what he said (and more importantly what he meant) than Matt Rudd. Nothing Capaldi says is particularly inflammatory and most of what he says is exciting and intriguing. He is simply talking about the new direction his portrayal of the Doctor will take the show, and that’s fine and great. But presented as they are and coupled with Rudd’s commentary they come across as strangely hubristic. In one strange quote, Capaldi asserts that, “There’ll be no flirting, that’s for sure…I did call and say, ‘I want no Papa-Nicole moments.’ I think there was a bit of tension with that at first, but I was absolutely adamant.”
I find it difficult to take this comment at face-value. Surely Moffat had this direction in mind for the Doctor when he offered the part to Capaldi to begin with. I certainly don’t believe he hired Capaldi thinking he’d be Matt Smith 2.0. Rather than present Doctor Who for the constantly evolving creature it is and always has been, Rudd focuses on Capaldi as a Whovian Messiah, here to deliver the program from its emotional tween baggage, dragging the program with him despite the “tension” this causes with The Powers That Be. Moffat is a lot of things, but he’s no push-over. Subsequent quotes from Capaldi clarify his real position better. “[Flirting is] not what this Doctor’s concerned with.” Not the Doctor, but this Doctor. He assures us that the dynamic between him and Clara will still be “quite fun” and that his Doctor will also continue to be “joyful” and to balance the tension between the “epic and the domestic.” Rudd’s comments show a lack of insight into how this show works. People have been saying that the new Doctor will save the series for as long as there have been new Doctors. The fact remains that Moffat’s tenure and Matt Smith’s Doctor were extremely popular and successful. While Capaldi’s Doctor may course-correct certain aspects, this isn’t because the show is in need of saving. Think about it – what other show this commercially successful gives itself a make-over for no reason? The studios would never allow it if it weren’t woven into the fabric of the show’s concept. And make no mistake, when the next Doctor is announced (whoever he or she may be), articles will be written about how that Doctor will be a revelation and compensate for Capaldi’s shortcomings as well. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that Rudd doesn’t get this, but I find it strange and bizarre that long-term, invested fans sometimes don’t.
Capaldi, appropriately, is retaining aspects of the Doctor that work (his joy and fun) and discarding those that don’t work for his Doctor. And, fair enough. He is nearly thirty years older than Jenna Coleman, and I don’t blame Capaldi, Coleman, and Moffat for not wanting to go down that road with this Doctor and companion duo. In any case, it’s always good to switch up the Doctor/companion dynamic occasionally, and what’s the point in changing Doctors if they don’t change? However, Rudd’s article doesn’t give any sense that this is a natural or collaborative process, instead giving Capaldi the credit for putting a stop to all this flirting nonsense as though Moffat and Coleman weren’t in agreement.
In case you couldn’t tell, I find Rudd’s article infuriating. There are several quotes from the actual creative team, however, that give me more hope for series 8. Moffat says the Doctor will be “older, trickier, fiercer,” and Mark Gatiss*** talks of the “madness in his eyes.” This one from Capaldi is particularly evocative:
“We still blow a lot of shit up. That’s very important, but it’s going to be a bit different from what we’ve seen over recent years. A bit more gravity. Some situations are a bit more sombre and I think there are more rooted dramatic scenes…. we have another level of drama, another tone. And the scenes are longer.”
Here, finally, Capaldi highlights the fact that “drama” (a close cousin to emotion) is a good thing, that the new series will feature lots of it. In particular I’m intrigued by “longer scenes,” which could be a pointer to Moffat’s comments about the change in the show’s rhythm or to their backing away from the more stylized, highly-edited, at times overwhelmingly fast pace which has characterized recent episodes such as “The Time of the Doctor.”
The closer we get to August 23rd, the more of these articles we’ll have to dissect, both the excitement and the bile. Let’s hope that when the series starts it will live up to Doctor Who‘s better nature.
**For the record, I’m not knocking the Classic series. Those first thirty years of the show were bold, experimental, and (in their own way) progressive and deserve the respect and affection of fans. However, I don’t think anything is gained by regressing into earlier modes of being. If it’s time for a change, better for the show to change with the times rather than revert to an older, safer way of doing things (which is what some fans and critics seem to want).
***It should have all been over when Rudd called Mark Gatiss “the best writer on the show.” Apologies to Gatiss, but Rudd surrendered all credibility in that moment.