Thursday, July 08, 2010

"Trapped in the netherspace, the void between the worlds"

- MAJOR Doctor Who season 5 spoilers ahead -

Oh. My. Goodness!
I may only have written about Doctor Who once before here at RD/KA!- at the end of David Tennant's first season back in 2007, but everyone who knows me knows only too well that I am a devoted fan of the show, albeit not a Whovian geek as such. As I set to writing this I've just come from watching for the 3rd time the 2-part finale to Matt Smith's first season as the inimitable Doctor, to refresh in my mind what made this season so striking as to prompt me to give vent to my enthusiasm for what has been 13 weeks of truly matchless television.

Brace yourselves dear readers!
In light of what I said last Sunday about the pointless sound and fury so often aroused in geek culture by clashes of tastes driven by blind partisanship, I want to begin with a warning and a clarification. If you don't like Doctor Who, or you do but don't share my high appreciation of the merits of this season: that's all well and good, but I don't care. Mule headed blind partisanship? No. I simply can't. This is just the blunt end of my critique of what I was hinting at last Sunday when I referred to how "personal tastes are justified against other people's by being raised to the level of intellectual generalisations".

What I'm getting at here is the all too widespread tendency for people to express their own tastes in absolute qualitative terms, so that different tastes are seen as inferior: if I like it it must be good; if I don't it must be bad; other people's tastes are then refracted through this egoistic prism. I believe that this is in part a legacy of the obsolescent division between high and low culture, art and entertainment- on the one hand; and the concomitant creation of the 'canon'- on the other.

I also think that this close-minded blind partisanship derives from the very conditions which have driven the obsolesence of the old high art aesthetic. These conditions are: the emergence of new media- based on technology (eg. digital media) or otherwise (eg. tabletop RPGs), which have transformed the cultural landscape so radically that they represent a veritable revolution; and the overwhelming profileration of expression in all these media. This historically unprecedented cultural richness has exploded the credibility of the notion of the canon because there are now literally too many products across too many media for even the most eclectic cultural afficionado to experience a representative sample of this new universe of creativity. And if even sampling everything is impossible then plainly liking everything is unimaginable.

Big little people and small big people
That's all very well you might say, but what's it got to do with geek rage? Compared to the old, this new culture is simultaneously more intensely personal- because of the necessary selection from the vast new menu; and more participatory- because of the new media among other things. We are therefore talking about something which more actively expresses and affirms individuality than could the old culture, so that it is the basis of the richest expression of personality that we common people have ever enjoyed. It makes us bigger people in other words.

Yet these wonders, or more precisely perhaps: our understanding of what they are, represent and so might become; these still labour under the burden of the dead hand of 'mainstream high culture', whose aesthetic is still only obsolescent after all. This survival is thanks largely to state and corporate patronage, the attendant awards circuit with its coterie of celebrity hangers-on, and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy and well-to-do.

Now don't get me wrong here: I'm not saying that this stuff is all crap; that's not the point of this polemic, and it's a matter of taste after all. What I'm saying is that the overweening sense of self-importance enjoyed by these ivory tower denizens- a mere trickle in our cultural floodtide after all; this serves to deny to geekery fair recognition of its true novelty and profound human value. Hence, I suggest, the defensiveness of those who internalise and project outwards the old order's negation of their newfound sense of cultural identity by adopting the obsolescent aesthetic equating taste with absolute quality.

And the point of all this? Paradoxically perhaps, it's about quality in the end. Critical appreciation of objects and matters of interest is essential to the exchange of ideas without which no human activity can aspire to become better than it is. The blind partisanship of tastes defined through the denigration of others' is a barrier impeding the necessarily comparative nature of this vital discourse. The effects of this are all the more baleful in geek culture because of what it is: a mulitmedia participatory culture of confluence and sythesis; ie. an open, exploratory culture. The tragedy of geek rage then is that it insists on slamming doors shut and turning back from the unknown.

- Total Doctor Who season 5 spoilage follows -

Class act: Amy Pond and the 11th Doctor

A möbius strip tied in a Gordian knot?
What do you get if you take Steven Moffat- writer of season 3's intricately plotted time-travel episode Blink, and give him an entire season of Doctor Who to play with? Let me tell you. You get the Doctor- existence unravelling because he's just rebooted the universe by staging Big Bang 2 at the heart of an exploding TARDIS, returning to from where he set forth, there to vanish; then being rescued by Amy Pond (new assistant) thanks to the seed he'd planted in her mind (in what was hitherto widely regarded to be a continuity error no less!) while that unravelling drew him back through an adventure in which the Doctor- the one going forward this time, had found out that these cracks in the universe were a growing threat on a cosmic scale; a threat which turned out to have been caused by his very own exploding TARDIS. Until, that is, the Doctor- in an alternate Earth, figured out how to intervene so that the explosion saved the day it had already created.

If your heads're already spinning dear readers, I'm afraid there's more. Twelve years elapsed between the 7-year old Amy's first meeting with the Doctor- at his point of departure and return (her house, where the Doctor also first encountered one of those cracks in the universe) and his reappearance for their first adventure together: saving the world, naturally enough. Two more years passed before the Doctor came back to take Amy on her first trip in the TARDIS, on the night before her wedding. The Doctor manages to turn up at Amy's wedding thanks to her remembrance: late- but in time for the dancing, and none the worse for having been erased from existence while Amy slept that night on which it turned out he hadn't invited her for that first trip in the TARDIS after all. So the whole series- spanning the length and breadth of time and space as ever, actually took place in a mere 24 hours.

And to cap it all: the universe might've been saved, but what caused the TARDIS to explode in the first place remains a mystery.

Ingredients essential to a new recipie
Three ingredients were essential to this heady brew: an absence, and two presences direct consequences thereof. The absence? That of Russell T. Davies, whose scripting had been the object of fans' complaints for some time. It was thanks to The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone 2-parter that I finally grokked what people were on about: there had been a subtle but significant change to the whole tenor of the storytelling. By the end of The Time of Angels I was aware of the significance of this absence and of the other two ingredients.

The masterly pre-credits sequence reintroducing River Song at the start of The Time of Angels- 5 minutes which for sheer wit, pace and concise storytelling outdid any James Bond movie opening I can remember; this showed us the second ingredient: superlative use of time travel, of its possibilities and its paradoxes. In Moffat's hands this is doubly dramatic because it's not just a 'black box' MacGuffin enabling plot twists, it's a tool the characters use to solve their problems. This has the added effect of deepening the characterisation because time travel becomes part of who they are- of how they relate to each other and so on, instead of just something they do.

This same dramatic intelligence was brought to bear on the third ingredient: characterisation. With Amy and River in particular we had two female characters who were strong protagonists in their own right in a way that was novel despite all the good work in this regard that had gone before. The Doctor was improved as a character by this peculiar loss of his familiar absolute authority. Why? Simply: he became stronger- as a dramatic character, because he was reacting to and relating with stronger characters. The result was again doubly improved drama: better dialogue on the one hand; on the other, supporting characters who became less than merely supporting because who they were and what they did played a bigger part in the plot, not to mention having a greater effect on the Doctor himself.

Rory's erasure from existence itself at the end of In Cold Blood is a case in point. By this time, the episode Amy's Choice had already seen Rory saved from his earlier role of comedy-relief pratt. This came when Amy realised that Rory was more important to her than a life with the Doctor which, however exciting, could only ever be platonic and therefore ultimately unsatisfying. Rory's tragic fate a mere 2 episodes later was thus all the more moving, and especially poignant when its nature meant that Amy forgot him. So not only had Rory grown as a character because of how he was reflected in his relationship with Amy; but the feelings at the core of that relationship, and the Doctor's guilt about his role in Rory's erasure: both of these were to have decisive consequences- for good and ill, in the season finale.

Now get out of that!
This intricate web of action and reaction, event and consequence, in the realms of thought, feeling and derring-do brought us to River Song at the start of The Pandorica Opens, once again using her own skills as a time-hopping super agent and her knowledge of the Doctor to bring the Doctor to her to deliver to him a clue which itself had travelled centuries up the timestream before she took it centuries back downsteam. And what did we find? That it was all a fiendish trap into which the Doctor was lured by being hoist on the petard of his own insatiable curiosity before finally being snared by the sin of hubris.

Plot twists piling on emotional reversals spilled forth helter skelter until we were left with the ultimate irony: the Doctor pleading for freedom with all of his most dangerous enemies- who'd united in an impossible alliance, because only he could save the universe from his own exploding TARDIS. They didn't listen, of course (he was the villain of the piece in their eyes), and so the Doctor was sealed in the Pandorica, simultaneoulsy sealing the fate of the universe.

Oh, alright then
A little girl- from an alternate Earth, who believes in stars which never existed follows a string of mysterious messages to open the Pandorica from which the Doctor has already been rescued because those messages are sent by himself on that alternate Earth; from where he returns to the original Earth at the centre of the dying universe to organise his own release; from where he travels to the alternate Earth, there to encounter the little girl (who has by now met her alternate older self, Amy, naturally enough); from whom he learns which messages to deliver and where.

The Doctor, Amy and Amy reunited, the piece's sole villain appears- a clapped-out Dalek; as do: Rory (again!); a dying Doctor- who gives himself some fateful advice with his dying breath; and River Song- rescued from the still-exploding TARDIS. Then the Dalek does for the Doctor, who promptly does the disappearing act which is the other end of his earlier mysterious appearance, and which leads to a second disappearance as it turns out the Doctor hadn't been dead after all. He'd been hard at work preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice, launching the Pandorica into the heart of his exploding TARDIS to spark Big Bang 2; only then to discover- as his time stream unravels towards his own erasure from existence, that he himself has one last chance: Amy's dreams of days that never were.

- Safe reading ahead -

This geek and his delights
So, dear readers, if you've followed me this far I'm hoping that there's one thing that we'll all have to agree upon: whether or not you like the 11th Doctor and/or Amy, Rory and River- and I know that some or all of the new characters have sharply polarised the show's fanbase; like them or not, they were part of a season which saw an already excellent TV show rise to new heights of sophistication. I'd argue that this is there in the structure of the stories and of the entire season, as I have tried to show above.

My point here is not to tell you that you have to decide to like what you didn't like (although that'd be nice, naturally enough). Rather I'm trying to demonstrate what I was getting at in the preceding polemic with my references to "critical appreciation" and "comparative... discourse". The structural features of cultural artefacts- texts, tunes, rules of the game, and so on; these have a qualitative objectivity of their own: their novelty; their authenticity or truthfulness; whether or not they actually work to deliver their creators' intentions, and so on. These aren't necessarily absolutes to be sure but you don't have to like something to be able to recognise and assess these qualities.

My private trip in the TARDIS
My love of Doctor Who is a case in point here. Forty-odd years ago I was a little kid who used to watch the show from behind my splayed fingers when I wasn't hiding behind the sofa. Doctor Who was therefore my personal introduction to stark staring terror, to the extent that I've sometimes wondered if my parents would've let me watch the show if they'd known the effect it had on me. I grew up with the Doctor for some twelve years before leaving the family home at around the time Tom Baker regenerated into Peter Davison.

Losing touch with the Doctor thereafter, I'd become so jaded by today's culture of movie blockbusters, franchises and remakes that I had no faith whatsoever in Doctor Who's planned revival in 2005; so much so that I wouldn't've watched Eccleston's first episode unless Gav had called to remind me that it was on. I loved it, naturally enough, but the crucial moment came right at the end. Rose was walking away from the TARDIS when the Doctor popped out to quip, "Did I also tell you it travels in time?"

"Yes, yes! It does!" I was shouting at the TV at this moment, because that was what the show had done for me: it had taken back me in time to that little kid. My immediate realisation thereafter was that the production team had succeeded with Doctor Who where George Lucas had failed with the Star Wars prequels: they had managed to exploit the generation gap in their audience to create a unique artistic experience, one in which young and old members of the audience are united in their enjoyment of a show which each generation watches as if through different ends of a telescope, if you will.

It wasn't until the season just passed that I realised how profound this achievement is. Why? Firstly because Moffat had put time travel front and centre, as well as at the heart of his jaw-dropping megaplot. Also, the way that Amy had been introduced took the personal dimension to which I referred above- the play on childnood memories and adult perspective in this viewer, and made it too both part of a great character and a crucial feature of the stunning finale. Along the way there were reflections on love, dreams and mortality which struck deep chords in me. In other words: a show about time travel already giving me a metaphoric sense of time travel in the way that it awakens my inner child started to orchestrate emotional symphonies of a whole new complexity because of the multi-layered mind games the stories were playing.

All of which brings us back to "personal taste" and "intellectual generalisations". Doctor Who is a singular pleasure for me because of the show's role in my life; not just when I was that kid who just couldn't resist the source of his terror, but also for what it represented when it was revived. This is the "intensely personal" dimension of the new culture to which I referred above and it is why challenging my taste here is pointless: this passion just runs too deep. It is obvious that it is simply impossible for many of Doctor Who's other fans to have the same relationship with the show, making it similarly futile to challenge the tastes of those who don't share my high opinion of the show.

My depth versus your superficiality? No! No! No!
It's the untrammelled delight Doctor Who brings me which drives me to analyse it in such detail, to understand how and why it thrills me so. This kind of passion is a natural consequence of how people choose from among the range of products of the new media, as I've tried to explain. Its lack of reciprocation likewise, because people are making personal choices every bit as deeply felt as my own response to Doctor Who. This is essential fuel for the geek rage which can make arguments about differing tastes so explosive. Because, as I've also tried to explain: the 'my tastes good, your tastes bad' line of argument adds a direct attack from your 'flanks and rear'- ie. from your fellow geeks whose tastes differ, to the indirect one from on high.

And that's where I came in: making no apologies for not giving a jot if you don't believe that this season of Doctor Who was the best yet of what was already the best TV show of its kind on the face of the planet. All I could say to that is: why not? Meanwhile, how ever will I survive until its return next year? ;)

- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!
- A parcel of rogues...


gnome said...

Okay, I might not know enough about Dr Who, but I'm more than interested in it. Besides, this excellent post wasn't about Dr Who at all, was it?

It was about high and pop culture. It was about popular thoughts on culture. And I really haven't decided what exactly I think. The dialectics are truly complex.

On one hand pop culture is indeed pop and some high-brow members of the bourgeoisie are just that. On the other hand we can neither discard the great works of say Marx nor accept that all things pop are enlightening.


I don't know. I'll try and come up with something more coherent than this. Probably in post format.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

The post is about Doctor Who, although what was intended as a minor aside became a major digression which gave the article a whole new direction in addition to that of my inital theme. Once that reared its head I just let rip, in what was actually as much a polemic against intra-geek prejudice as anything else.

As for the rest? Well I guess I have to say it's still a work in progress, in which I am very much feeling my own way forward because I have no special education in the fields of social or cultural theory. I am pretty much giving it my best shot as I go along (making it up in other words).

I enjoy writing this kind of thing and the results please me but I confess I really have no idea how well I'm actually doing. Nor even of where this kind of work might fit in the spectrum of writings on related topics, of which I am essentially ignorant. I do have hopes of developing a more systematic account of an aspect of what was contained in this piece, but I haven't even assembled a proper reading list yet, let alone started any research.

I appreciate your supportive comments on these posts gnome, and look forward to seeing what you have to say on such matters when you find the time. :)