louisedennis (louisedennis) wrote,

The subtext of death: narratives, themes and structures

I bet you all thought I'd forgotten about Time and Relative Dissertations in Space, in fact, I've just been very busy and, mostly, away.

The empire of the senses: narrative form and point-of-view in Doctor Who

I fell into a conversation some months back on About Time 2 in which Tat Wood's academic specialism came up and we all realised we didn't know what it was, though we all thought it was in the social sciences. So, it must be said, the first thing I did was look up his biography at the end of the book. Disappointingly all it says is Currently lecturing and tutoring, he is busy mentoring mature students from across the Commonwealth and the new Europe. This is a little bizarre. Academic judgment (rightly or wrongly) uses credentials a lot when evaluating a piece of work. As an academic reading essays well out of my specialism I'm also looking at the bios to help gain a sense of where in an argument the author can be assumed to have extensive knowledge. Anyway Tat Wood is clearly keen to keep the nature of his expertise vague...

Tat Wood's essay spends a long time making its points, often bringing several pages of examples into to play before summarising its conclusion. It distinguishes two approaches to narrative and point-of-view. One is objective and objectifying, imperialist and "Disney", it invites us to act as voyeurs rather than participants. The other is humble, awed, participatory, multi-cultural and "British". Wood then draws on various Doctor Who stories, as well as various natural history documentary paradigms (contrasting whether the viewer is intended to perceive the animals as "performing" for them, or intended to be awed by the wonder of nature) to argue that Doctor Who, and British TV in general, codifies the "Disney" approach as wrong. This is interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, I wasn't entirely convinced by the thesis, particularly the emphasis on the BBC's multi-culturalism and regionalism. Moreover the core of the argument seemed to rest on a basic separation of narrative styles into "American and bad" and "British and good" which is both grotesquely prejudiced and over-simplistic. Although the essay never clearly agrees with the shows alleged codification of British=good and American=bad the subtext was that the essay agreed with this identification.

The other reason I found it interesting was that despite their differences Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood clearly agree on this basic distinction. Since Miles has been ranting on his blog recently about the Hollywoodisation of modern Doctor Who as a fundamental betrayal of its traditions. At least I think he has, now I look for the entry I can't find it.

The ideology of anachronism: television, history and the nature of time

Alex Charles provides the second really jargon and theory heavy offering of the book. A fascinating essay which, if I'm understanding it correctly, puts forward the theory that Doctor Who is representative of a general trend in the 20th century BBC as a whole which pushes essentially imperialist/colonialist ideas underneath a facade of liberal values. There are some obvious examples. The early Hartnell story The Ark is a two part story in which (in part the first) the TARDIS crew dismally fail to exhibit any inclination to free the servitor Monoid race from their (white) human masters but rush to the aid of said white humans (in part the second) when the Monoids sneakily turn the tables.

The title of the essay derives from the imperialist/totalitarian desire to "freeze history" and Charles uses this imagery, present in a number of Doctor Who stories, to expand on his treatment of how the show implicitly peddles such values.

To say that Doctor Who, a product of British late 20th century establishment broadcasting, consciously or otherwise is mired in colonialist attitudes seems a fair enough comment. Where the essay gets a little bizarre is in its treatment of the new series. One of the few essays in the book to discuss the new series in any detail, this one is enthusiastic about Russell Davies' vision and, in particular, paints it as one that challenges the colonial attitudes embedded in our culture. Maybe its because I read too much livejournal but there are well-reasoned (and, to be honest, not so well-reasoned) arguments that New Who displays just the trends Charles identifies in the classic series - namely peddling colonial, and particularly racist, stereotypes under a facade of multicultural values.

There is also a case to be made here that you can clearly pick and choose examples from the Doctor Who output to support almost any theory you like: Wood in the previous essay saw Doctor Who as essentially anti-colonial (the TARDIS crew do not impose values on the places they visit but instead listen and learn) while Charles finds it pro-colonial. In the end I find Charles' thesis the more convincing one, even if I did not agree with all his arguments and examples. Doctor Who is a product of an environment that has its roots in paternalism and empire and it would be surprising if those values did not still linger.

Mythic identity in Doctor Who

David Rafer's essay was a welcome relief after the dense writing of Alec Charles and, to a lesser extent Tat Wood. Unfortunately it appears to have been almost instantly forgettable. I've just re-read the final paragraph. It notes that Doctor Who often presents myth as a device by which the Doctor can overcome superstition but that it also predates Stargate and Babylon 5 in its use of mythological stories recast into Science Fiction.

The human factor: Daleks, the `Evil Human' and Faustian legend in Doctor Who

Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens round off this section with a fascinating analysis of the Dalek stories. It benefitted over the previous three essays by being able to survey comprehensively the stories which were relevant to its thesis rather than cherry-picking those which would support its argument. Moore and Stevens note that the Dalek stories, more so than many of Doctor Who's other "monster" stories, are about the actions of the human protagonists. In particular, since the Daleks frequently have human allies, they present a series of Faustian tales examining the ways humans fall into evil for either good or bad reasons with the Daleks acting sometimes overtly as a mephistophelian influence and sometimes merely as catalysts. Although they do not examine the new series you can see the same influences at work. Most obviously The Daleks of Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks gives us the character of Mr Diagoras; driven by a desire to survive, to a desire to rule and finally sacrificing himself (in his Dalek hybrid form) to save the Doctor. But the season 1 Dalek stories also both center around the Doctor's own temptation to evil in the face of a Dalek threat.

For reference: my review the whole collection as a whole (in which I criticise the general tendency to verbose writing and example cherry-picking from the point of view of a Computer Scientist) and my review of part one in detail
Tags: books:author:lawrence miles, doctor who, doctor who:author:lawrence miles, doctor who:books, doctor who:books:time and relative disse, doctor who:review, doctor who:review:book, review, review:book, review:book:doctor who, review:book:non-fiction, review:doctor who, review:doctor who:book

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