Saturday, December 21, 2013

Doctor Who is a God - Science Fiction and the Worship of Man

I've come to two conclusions about Science Fiction. First, if there's any chance of enjoying things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, one must embrace the inherent campiness of it. Chewbacca? Alien octopuses in robotic shells that have no emotion but hate? Yes, please. The other conclusion? Stay tuned.

Over the last few weeks, I've watched enough New Doctor Who episodes to get a pretty fair grasp of the show. I know not to call him Doctor Who, but The Doctor. I can hold my own in a conversation that throws around terms like "Cybermen" and "Daleks" and "Time Lords" and even (ugh) "Slitheens." 

For those of you who don't know - Doctor Who is about a 900-year-old shape-shifter who travels through space and time in a ship shaped like a 1950's police-box and saves various realities from malign species, accompanied by amusing, usually female sidekicks. He never dies, but regenerates every few years into another member of RADA. And yes, it's about as campy as it sounds, but there are moments when it transcends its genre.

Here's the thing: I really wanted to like this show. I really did. And I did like it, through the first season. It was season two that killed it for me. (I am compelled to add, however, that season 3 pulled me back into the fold, thanks mostly to Donna Noble.) After what I realized watching the second season, it can never be quite the same.

What happened? Halfway through the first episode of season 2, New Earth, I vividly remembered a slightly misquoted Stephen Moffat line a friend had mentioned to me months before. He was speaking of the title characters from his two most famous shows: 

“I think Sherlock is more flawed than the Doctor, in that he's chasing a delusion, I suppose. The remark I always make is that the Doctor is like an angel aspiring to be human, and Sherlock is a man aspiring to be a god. Neither of them come close to succeeding in that aim, or ever could. It'd be impossible for them.”
Except the Doctor's not an angel - he's a god. Really. The Moffat quote occurred to me right after a scene in New Earth where an exchange takes place between the Doctor and the villain, who is using humans as guinea pigs for her experiments:

HAME: [T]hink of those Humans out there, healthy and happy, because of us.
DOCTOR: If they live because of this, their lives are worthless!
HAME: But who are you to decide that?
DOCTOR: I'm the Doctor! And if you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, then there isn't one! It stops with me. 

Earlier in the episode, the Doctor was described as "a wanderer...the man without a home. The lonely god." Not exactly subtle. The climax in this particular story comes when he miraculously cures a group of hundreds of humans, cursed with every disease on the planet, and in the process creates "A brand new form of life. New humans!...You can't deny them, because you helped create them. The human race just keeps on going, keeps on changing. Life will out! Ha!"

Think about it. He’s not human. He’s just a step above us, relatable but powerful. He's a healer, but he has the power to wipe out entire races. He's spoken of in an abundance of highly religious language, Time Lord Victorious, the great warrior, an angel. Whenever someone just says the word "Doctor," there is a sort of mystical significance to it. His judgments are apocalyptic. Can you think of any other character whose actions are spoken of in the terms of "the fury and kindness of a Time Lord?" Fury? Why not "he is a jealous god?" That's probably up next.

"You've come to help. Praise the Doctor! Praise him."
-"The Unquiet Dead"

I’m hardly the only one that finds this laughably obvious. See here, here, and here. It's not just because I'm a Christian. An atheistic journalist in The Guardian commented on it. Bestselling sci-fi/fantasy author and humanist Terry Pratchett says the Doctor has become...

“an amalgam of Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ (I laughed my socks off during the Titanic episode when two golden angels lifted the Doctor heavenwards) and Tinkerbell….There is nothing he doesn't know, and nothing he can't do. He is now becoming God, given that the position is vacant ... Perhaps they should start transmitting the programme on Sundays."

There’s an excellent comment on this site by a fellow named Edward Hamilton describing the show:
It’s bound by an anti-Prime Directive, where the Doctor feels a moral obligation to completely upend every society he encounters and replace all their old social values with a revolutionary new perspective that (shockingly!) corresponds to the post-Christian elite consensus of western European nations.

If modern man could design a god to fit all his desires, it would be the Doctor. He's politically correct. He is fallible (and therefore not holy). He's an incarnation of popular culture. He's funny, handsome, charismatic, conflicted. He has his flaws, but he isn’t stepping on any toes. He tells us we’re wonderful. He needs us, because he gets lonely. He's a prepackaged messiah.

I quote again from Edward Hamilton:

The newer show is predictably cleaned-up to the point of clinical sterility. The protagonist no longer resembles a relentless and wild-eyed itinerant prophet, but has become more of an emotionally wounded man-child in constant need of some new manic pixie dream girl to disrupt his solipsistic bachelorhood. The old show felt utterly unlike anything else on television, but the new show feels like a Whedonesque stew of modern science fiction tropes that’s somehow been expertly recalibrated to appeal to young single women. I can’t help looking at it with the same lingering regret as a indie-music fan who suffered the indignity of seeing a beloved underground group turn mainstream and become wretchedly popular with throngs of teen girls.”
All right, fair enough, but it’s a free country. What am I complaining about? I’m not mounting a campaign to have it pulled from television (idolatry! Break out the pitchforks! I have better ways to spend my weekends), but I do think people ought to think about what they’re watching. That goes for all television. Even if you’re an atheist, you should examine this desire to worship something, especially if it’s your own principles. Talk about giving yourself a pat on the back. At least don't delude yourself into thinking it's about diversity.

Another thing: preachiness is bad art. Propaganda is hardly radical, it’s just lazy. And Doctor Who comes dangerously close to a humanist sermon. Its best moments are when it isn’t trying to teach something, like in Blink or The Empty Child two-parter, which are just terrific stories. Gridlock is another example of a more balanced tale open to many interpretations.

This is where we return to my second conclusion: Contrary to popular belief, Science Fiction is almost the complete opposite of Fantasy. Yes, they both involve fantastical creatures and unearthly settings, but there is a deep ideological divide at the heart of both genres. Fantasy is often accused of supporting reactionary values and a paternalistic, atavistic societal structure. Being set in the past (usually), this is its trademark weakness, to be conservative propaganda. That. Is. A. Bad. Thing.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in the future, and its weakness is its tendency to envision a progressive utopia in the stars, where humankind has miraculously shed its faults and become the mythical Superman. The irony about Doctor Who is that while it alleges to teach diversity, all it really tells us is that the rest of the universe agrees with our modern 21st Century mores, and those that don't are unenlightened.

In The Satan Pit, the alien being from whom all legends of the devil have sprung says

“I am the sin, and the fire, and the darkness! I shall never die! The thought of me is forever: in the bleeding hearts of men, in their vanity, obsession, and lust!”

That’s practically the first time we’ve heard humanity could have flaws, much less sin. While there is certainly bigotry, racism, and other frequently referenced Leftie sins, mostly humankind is “Indomitable, that's the word! Indomitable! Ha!” (Utopia, S3ep11) It's notable that it is postulated that "Maybe that's what the devil is, in the end - an idea" which is destroyed at the end of the episode, after, in fact, the Doctor has descended into...well, you know. I believe Rose's expression is, "Go to hell!" That's what we think of sin.

(All the same, in that episode another interesting point is made - that the Doctor is always traveling in order "To be proved wrong," to learn where his knowledge has defects. But, of course, in the end, the Doctor is practically always right on points of morality, so his comments about the fallibility of his "rules" are somewhat irrelevant.)

Humanity is really the key here, because this is what the show is about.

"I've seen a lot of this universe. I've seen fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods and would-be gods, and out of all that, out of that whole pantheon, if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her..." 

the Doctor says, of the Everyman stand-in, Rose Tyler. He believes in the indomitableness of humanity, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the upholding of his TV audience's secular mindset.

Am I making a mountain of a molehill? Probably. Really, it's not a huge deal to me, but thing is - I know it is to a lot of other people. Our society often culls its values from pop culture, and I don't think we should dismiss something this influential.

I still watch it occasionally. It did make my top picks section in 2013. I'd like to get beyond season 3 at some point, and Matt Smith does seem pretty awesome. It has its merits, among them a devotion to wonder, a value on life, ("Everybody lives, Rose!") and great British supporting actors. But in the end, I can't shake my conviction that the show is a self-centered hymn to humanism, complete with a god made in our own image. It's not quite funny enough to make up for it.

Longish

4 comments:

  1. I think it just deleted my comment. I just hit publish. Good grief. I think your blog doesn't like me because I leave substantial comments.

    Anyway, what I was saying was that this is an awesome post--further evidence that you are keen, and you do your research. I often reflect on this aspect in Doctor Who--and it seems a common theme in Science Fiction. Perhaps it is the innate, however small, belief that there must be something bigger outside this universe that does have a power on events. So people naturally create stories that reflect that innate belief. (Whether or not they see it that way, and it is arguable). My love of the show is its endless, boundless creativity--the Doctor can be so wise, but so childlike. Even though I see the flaws, I see so much good as well. The Doctor is someone who I certainly wouldn't mind having as my friend. And that, perhaps, is something that I judge characters by. Didn't really think of it in so many words until just now. I do wonder though, with all of the show's "political correctness" if they'd have the guts to take on something stronger--abortion. As a show that values life so much, would they have the tenacity to tackle this one? But--perhaps they do in a partial way--that value of life as a principle of the show. But still. I'd be curious as to what they come up with. I like challenging people--wondering if they'll surprise me.

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    1. Perhaps write it in Microsoft Word, copy and paste? I like long comments, and I've contributed many in my time, so that's what I do. :)

      Anyway, Doctor Who. I do find it interesting that we have to find something to deify, even if we wouldn't call it that. In that sense, I think there are no atheists.

      I understand the childlike element, but I think the recent incarnations reflect not the ancient childlike foolishness, but a modern childish immaturity. Like Edward Hamilton, I could sympathize with a character who is a sort of politically incorrect fool, an unconventional hero, but the tenth Doctor is just so...GIF-ready, if you know what I mean. He has no harsh edges. Even the flaws don't really make us uncomfortable...I don't know how to describe it, it's like...he's got all the advantages of a god, and demands the same sort of devotion, but he has enough flaws for us to criticize him and feel a little superior.

      That said, I think I'd like hanging out with the ninth Doctor. He was funny without being bouncy. :D

      I think it would be terrific if the show would *actually* take on something controversial. It seems to pride itself on its social commentary, but it really just mirrors the political correctness of its time. I think Terry Pratchett does a better job of that, with his Discworld series.

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  2. As a long time Doctor Who fan (who, incidentally, found this piece via the link in your superb piece on the Raven King in 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'), I have to say, I never really looked at the show like this. Oh, I noticed the messianic overtones to the Doctor (though to my mind, they'd be more accurately described as a God Complex, where the 10th Doctor is concerned at least), and it's hard to miss the comparisons to Whedon's oeuvre. That said, we must be fair: Joss Whedon has left a defining stamp/influence on pop culture from Doctor Who to the X-Men to the post 2008 wave of superhero films (which have all either played into his vision of the MCU or consciously gone against it).

    The Doctor is certainly politically correct - aside from occasionally remarking that humans are stupid compared to him (which, to be fair, they kind of are) - but to be honest, that's a reflection of the times and of Davies' showrunning (which was largely excellent, though not perfect). And that's what Doctor Who is so good at, it reflects the present day. Each Doctor has exemplified the era they emerged in, where Britain is concerned at least - the 10th Doctor reflected an attitude where it was believed that 'the West knows best'; even if the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren't agreed with, the general cultural thrust was.

    However, I think that the Doctor is best described as an acute sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he spends three whole lifetimes trying to conceal: the 9th Doctor was often grim, though like a Manic Depressive, he had his manic moments too. The 10th Doctor was bouncy, fiery and passionate, playing the cheerful young charmer for the sake of his companions (it's heavily implied that he regenerated into a handsome young romantic for Rose's sake), to conceal a deep, deep pain, a gob-smacking God Complex, and an absolutely horrifying rage. The first 4 series construct and then deconstrust the Doctor's god-like image, underlining on a frequent basis that it is NOT a good thing and that he needs someone human to keep him grounded (I too preferred Seasons 3 and 4 to Season 2, and Martha and Donna to Rose - that plot went on far, far too long). The 11th Doctor, meanwhile, affected an even more childish image, running even further from the pain and loss, and from romance too, this time round (though he eventually had a sort of relationship with River and Clara).

    Then, he came to terms with it all, facing his traumas and moving past them (though the magnificent speech in the Zygon Inversion shows that the Time War still haunts him) when he became the 12th Doctor, accepting that he could no longer afford to play the fool, to pretend to be young when he most definitely wasn't, throwing off the last vestiges of that when he left Clara. Oh, he has his dorky, quirky moments, like 9, but he's not 'afraid to be an adult' as 10 and 11 were accused of (with some justification) by the War Doctor.

    In summation, I don't agree with all you've said, but it was certainly a very interesting read.

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    1. Gosh, I've been meaning to put a caveat at the top of this piece for ages. I've come to recant basically the whole thing. I wrote it when I was...17, maybe? Possibly 18. I hadn't watched the whole show, and I was a little inclined to see culture war enemies everywhere. Anyway, I gave the show another shot last year, with a few more years and a little more maturity behind me, and it's now one of my absolute favorite shows.

      Just to drive the point home, I dressed as River Song for Halloween last year, ordered a bag of jelly babies from Ireland for Christmas, and keep my homemade sonic screwdriver with me wherever I move.

      After forging through the rather ridiculous third season, the fourth season did a good job of deconstructing Tennant's God complex (oh, gosh, "Last of the Time Lords" was awful) and forcing him to accept his own...well, if not mortality, then at least vulnerability, in "The End of Time." I still prefer Matt Smith's less emo take on the character, but I've come to love Tennant as well.

      I'm torn about Capaldi, but I ADORE his speech in the Zygon Inversion. I think it's one of the subtlest, truest portrayals of forgiveness and pride that I've ever seen. I teared up watching it the first time. I'm enjoying the tenth season so far as well, and I'm hoping to write up some reviews between the end of finals and the beginning of my summer internship.

      Um, so - in short, I pretty much completely agree. Doctor Who rocks.

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