Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review - Doctor Who in Time and Space by Gillian I. Leitch (editor)

Essays included:
Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present) by Andrew O'Day
Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present by Andrew O'Day
Don't Call It a Comeback by Aaron Gulyas
Whose Doctor? by J.M. Frey
In and Out of Time: Memory and Chronology by Kieran Tranter
Effecting the Cause: Time Travel Narratives by Paul Booth
Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations, and Marketing in the New Doctor Who by Racheline Maltese
Nostalgia for Empire: 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom
A Needle Through the Heart: Violence and Tragedy as a Narrative Device by Lindsay Coleman
Everything Dies: The Message of Mortality in the Eccleston and Tennant Years by Kristine Larsen
"Ready to Outsit Eternity": Human Responses to the Apocalypse by Andrew Crome
A Country Made from Metal? The "Britishness" of Human-Machine Marriage in Series 31 by Kate Flynn
"Whatever You Do, Don't Blink!" Gothic Horror and the Weeping Angels Trilogy by David Whitt
Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box: Time Travel as a Heroic Journey of Self-Discovery for Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble by Antoinette F. Winstead
Spoiled for Another Life: Sarah Jane Smith's Adventures with and Without Doctor Who by Sherry Ginn
Chasing Amy: The Evolution of the Doctor's Female Companion in the New Who by Lynnette Porter

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Doctor Who in Time and Space is a collection of essays about the Doctor Who television series covering topics that range from the inception of the series to the present. The book focuses on Doctor Who fans, media perceptions, characters, thematic elements, and the history of the show. The essays in the volume are more than mere nostalgia pieces, but represent a serious attempt to put the phenomenon of the longest running science fiction show in television history into context and evaluate it and its adoring cadre of fans.

After an introduction by editor Gillian I. Leitch, the first essay is an examination of the evolution of Doctor Who fandom by Andrew O'Day titled Event TV: Fan Consumption of Televised Doctor Who in Britain (1963-Present), providing an assessment of how lovers of the show watched it over the years. describing the Doctor Who show as "event television" that people would make sure to watch, O'Day talks about how ardent fans of the series would go to great lengths to make sure they were able to view the show in the days before home video recorders, how fans would gather at conventions to view beloved episodes of the show that were otherwise inaccessible, how the development of the VCR changed not only how many times fans could watch a show, but also changed how they watched it to begin with, and eventually discussing the modern development of public viewings where fans gather to watch the show at pubs. The essay is an excellent start to the book, because it shows quite clearly how the fans' relationship with the show changed over the years.

Before I go any further I must make a confession that will, no doubt, damn me in the eyes of many die-hard Doctor Who fans: I have never seen an episode of the show that featured Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. Though I have seen a few episodes featuring William Hartnell, the earliest Doctor Who series I can say that I have watched a substantial portion of is that featuring John Pertwee, and my first exposure to Doctor Who involved episodes in which Tom Baker was playing the role. Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Troughton other than him being the guy who preceded Pertwee in the role, and had no idea how private and reclusive he was when alive.

The second essay in the book is Social Spaces: British Fandom to the Present also by Andrew O'Day, focusing on how Doctor Who fans have interacted with one another through the history of the show rather than how they have interacted with the show itself. The essay details how technological changes mostly resulted in the replacement of conventions and clubs with internet forums and the replacement of fanzines with webzines as the primary mediums of fan interchange. But O'Day also points out how these new methods of communication also served to enhance the older forms, revitalizing them even as they were being relegated to secondary status. This essay is less engaging than O'Day's first entry in the book, mostly because the bulk of it is merely recounting what conventions, fanzines, and websites there have been and who created them, but there is a brief discussion concerning the transformation of Doctor Who fandom from a mostly white straight male-dominated affair to one in which women, minorities, and gay people are now well-represented among its ranks. This element is only briefly touched upon, which is unfortunate, as it is the most interesting segment of the piece.

Also dealing with the relationship between fandom and Doctor Who, Aaron Gulyas' essay Don't Call It a Comeback focuses on the wilderness years between the end of "classic" Doctor Who in 1990 and the return of the show to television in 2005, an unsettled period for Whovians punctuated only by the Paul McGann movie in 1996. During this time the only source of new Doctor Who related material was a collection of non-television media such as novels, comics, and audio productions, leaving fans to try to decide what "counted" as real Doctor Who and what did not. This led to some rather furious infighting as different fans accepted certain things as "canon" while others vociferously rejected them and accepted others. As Gulyas points out, this was exacerbated by the Paul McGann movie introducing him as the 8th Doctor, a movie that tried to mollify old fans with several nods to the "classic" show, but managed to enrage many by not being enough like the old show to suit their tastes. As happens with so many fictional properties in the genre world, fans desperately wanted new material, but they also wanted it to be exactly like what had gone before. The dominant message that came through in this essay was that the overwhelming sense of fan entitlement, though an indicator of the deep love fans had and have for the series, was probably the biggest obstacle to getting the show back on the air, and it was only with deft handling, and leaving a lot of the details vague, that the writers of the new series were able to accomplish this feat.

J.M. Frey's essay is titled Whose Doctor? which highlights the many connections between Doctor Who and Canada, and then gripes that the Doctor has never had an adventure set there. The most obvious connection is Sydney Newman, the Canadian head of drama for BBC who originally brought Doctor Who to the screen. In addition, the television show is partially funded by Canadian tax dollars, through contributions made by CBC to the BBC for that purpose. But aside from a few oblique references here and there, Canada is entirely absent from the Doctor's universe. Frey also tries to argue that the character of the Doctor is fundamentally Canadian in nature, mostly by arguing that virtually every good characteristic that could be attributed to a people, such as a willingness to stick up for the little guy and respect for indigenous peoples, should be attributed to Canadians, while all bad attributes, such as a yearning for empire and a love of colonialism, are absent from Canadians. While I like Canada and Canadians as much as the next resident of the United States, I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the population is so unwaveringly admirable. This portion of the essay, attempting to claim all of the virtuous traits of the Doctor as being essentially Canadian at their root, is the weakest portion of the essay, and serves to detract to a certain extent from the true injustice of the complete absence of Doctor Who stories set in the country.

Kieran Tranter's essay Memory and Time attempts to explain the enduring popularity of Doctor Who by referencing the show's relationship to time. This makes sense, given that the show is about a time traveler, although most of the episodes don't have very much in the way of time travel within their narrative. The critical element of Doctor Who, Tranter writes, is that it is both timefull and timeless: The Doctor is a character out of time, who flits from era to era, crossing paths with himself and others, but he is also a creature of time, filled with memories of his own past and aging as the years go by. Tranter weaves together instances throughout the run of the show in which the time travel nature comes to the fore, and in which the passing of the years has an impact upon the Doctor and those around him. But Trantor also notes how the Doctor seems to be outside of time, with a special dispensation to alter it to suit his aims or merely his whims even though the show writers have tried to constrain him several times, with limited success. As the one long-running science fiction franchise that has time travel firmly at the center of its being, it is probably inevitable that this would be the attribute that is acknowledged as the source of the longevity of its popularity, and Trantor does a good job of explaining just why the Doctor's oddly paradoxical relationship to time, has made the show so successful.

Also dealing with the use of time travel in the Doctor Who series, Paul Booth's essay Effecting the Cause addresses some of the inherent contradictions posed by setting a narrative within the "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff". Booth is primarily focused on how time travel and all of the odd paradoxes that come with it are dealt with in the show, or, in many cases, not dealt with at all. Booth focuses primarily on the "new Who", mostly because "classic Who" for the most part ignored the various paradoxes, time loops, and other issues that the ability to travel through time can present. Much of the essay relates to the relationship between the Doctor and River Song, as they travel more or less in opposite directions in time, and the episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, which presented a looping narrative in which the Pandorica serves as both the cause of the plot, and the effect that is caused by it. Booth touches on a number of other issues - for example even though the Doctor speaks of eliminating the other Time Lords in the past - because it happened in his past - the reality of the narrative is that he eliminated them throughout time, resulting in a universe in which the effects of the existence of the Time Lords can still be seen and felt, but in which the Time Lords were never present to begin with.

Moving away from the use of time as a narrative device, Racheline Maltese considers the use of the media as another form of narrative device in her essay Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of the Media. Maltese considers how the writers of Doctor Who have used insertions of the media into their stories as a method of injecting verisimilitude into the fantastical. The essay focuses primarily on the "New Who",  with only a scant nod to the "classic" version of the show, but it also presents commentary concerning the media portrayal in the Doctor Who spin off shows Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, contrasting the way the media is presented in each show, and evaluating what that means in terms of the fictional tone that results. The most obvious contrast is between The Sarah Jane Adventures on the one hand, and Torchwood on the other, with the darker, conspiracy laden tone of Torchwood leading to a portrayal of the media as a means of spreading disinformation, whereas in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with a journalist as a central character, the media is presented as a means of disseminating truth. Doctor Who itself, on the other hand, sits in a middle ground, showing how the media can be used to verify factual accuracy, but also showing how the media can be manipulated for good, as it is in The Christmas Invasion, or for ill, as it is in The Long Game. But, Maltese argues, through all of this, the portrayal of the media is seen as an element that grounds the series for the viewer, giving them reassurance that no matter how fantastical the events become, if there is a reporter present, there is an air of veritas about the plot.

Doctor Who was originally created at a time when Britain was coming to grips with the dissolution of its empire and the loss of its position as one of the primary world powers. It should come as no surprise that during its early years the show reflected the resulting nostalgic national yearning, an issue that makes up the subject of the essay Nostalgia for Empire, 1963-1974 by Maura Grady and Cassie Hemstrom. Focusing on the episodes created during the tenures of the first three Doctors, Grady and Hemstrom examine how the series served to reassure British audiences that their English society was the pinnacle of civilization, emphasizing that their comfortable and familiar culture was superior to the alternatives. And at the same time, the evolving and conflicted attitudes towards indigenous peoples resulted in a show that ran from markedly chauvinistic to at least giving the appearance of concern for the colonized natives. Early in the show, even when the Doctor counseled caution when interfering with the practices of non-English cultures, such as in The Aztecs, such caution was couched in a way that although it was considered inappropriate to change the ways of the natives, everyone considered it to be obvious that they would be better off if the natives chose to adopt English mores. By the end of the period examined, the attitudes of the series had morphed to sympathy for, and at least mouthed respect towards the cultures of the natives, as reflected in episodes such as The Mutants. By placing the early Doctor Who years in cultural context, Grady and Hemstrom put the Doctor himself into context showing how the character evolved as England's relationship with its former possessions evolved and yet retained his central message that being British was special and valuable.

Lindsay Coleman's essay A Needle Through the Heart sets about examining how Doctor Who has used horror as a narrative device throughout its run. For its entire existence, Doctor Who has been something of a self-contradiction, being ostensibly a show aimed t children, but also a show that seems, through the years, to have scared children into hiding behind the couch. And despite the many exotic terrors that have appeared on the show, Coleman points out that the most terrifying, and the ones that drew the most criticism were those firmly rooted in the mundane world such as a child's doll, a plastic couch, and ultimately, the police in Terror of the Autons. In the classic version of the series, the horror seems to have ramped up to hit its high point during Tom Baker's first year, possibly peaking in Revelation of the Daleks with Tasambeker  stabbing Jobel in the heart with a needle, and then slid backwards until the commencement of the new series. But the horror included in the series was required for the sort of moral balancing that the show aspired to put on display. Without it, there would have been no nobility in the Doctor's opposition, and that is what drove the show. Lacking the horror, the show devolved into comedy, then farce, then self-parody. As Coleman ably demonstrates in her essay, without horror, Doctor Who is simply not itself.

Kristine Larsen's essay Everything Dies focuses on the message of mortality during the Eccleston and Tennant years of the series. As Larsen points out, the series immediately began focusing on the theme of mortality with the episode The End of the World focusing on, naturally enough, the death of the Earth, and ultimately, the death of the last living human. As noted by a character in the very first new episode, death follows the Doctor like an old friend, giving the entire show a theme that has served to define the series. Even when a character manages to evade death, such as Jack Harkness who is returned from the dead by an overzealous superpowered Rose Tyler, there are consequences for defying one's mortality. In Doctor Who everything dies is a repeated mantra, and even the Doctor himself is subject to this maxim, dying on occasion and returning in a transformed state. Larsen makes a convincing case that the central theme of Doctor Who is not time travel, or aliens, or space, but rather coming to grips with the fact that everything comes to an end. And also that it is this that makes the show so compelling to viewers.

Ready to Outsit Eternity, subtitled "Human Responses to the Apocalypse", by Andrew Crome addresses how the series has dealt with the various doomsday scenarios that crop up so often in its episodes. After discussing how the series has incorporated apocalyptic themes in various ways, Crome gets to the meat of his essay and discusses how the Doctor features in averting, reversing, and even creating the various apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios that play out during the show, including how the Doctor has taken on an active role in most cases, a merely advisory role in others, and an almost messianic role in still others. Overall, the essay is quite good, and quite insightful, but since the topic seems to almost boil down to "how do people react when the Doctor saves the world" the scope is almost too large to do justice to in a single piece.

The most focused essay in the volume is Kate Flynn's A Country Made from Metal, which focuses exclusively on the relationship between Amy Pond and Rory in series 31 of the show, and limits its attention to the theme of the literal and figurative mechanization of the two. The essay is at its strongest when it focuses on Rory, probably because Rory is the less popular and more interesting of the romantic pair. Because the Doctor has to be presented as the dominant leader, Rory has to be more or less emasculated by the writers so as to not be a threat to the Doctor's position. But because they wanted him to be a love interest for Amy, he couldn't be completely neutered. Consequently the show worked to play down his masculine identity for much of the series - placing him in the traditionally female profession of nurse, giving him a ponytail, having Amy "choose" the Doctor over him as a partner, and so on. It is only after the human Rory dies and comes back as a plastic construct built from Amy's memories that he is able to assert himself, and even then, he must be separated from the Doctor to do so by spending a couple thousand years guarding Amy's prison while the Doctor takes the shortcut through time via the TARDIS. Flynn weaves all of these facts together to make a convincing case that the mechanization of Rory is a critical thematic element that helps hols all of the series together, but her attempts to argue that Amy is figuratively mechanized as a displaced Scot being forced to live within a stereotypically English village feel quite forced. In short, half of the essay is brilliant, and half seemed less than convincing.

Whatever You Do, Don't Blink! by David Whitt is another very focused essay, ostensibly about the three series episodes featuring the Weeping Angels. While the bulk of the essay is about Blink, The Time of the Angels, and Flesh and Stone, the essay does, however, offer some additional insight into the nature of Gothic horror and how Gothic horror themes have been used in Doctor Who. The essay then goes on to provide synopses of the three episodes and then sets out to show that they deserve the label of Gothic horror. As this is a somewhat trivial observation, and as the additional observation that the episodes are all fairly frightening is also somewhat less than surprising, the essay is more or less a banal exercise in defining a genre and then pointing to a couple examples that clearly fall within that genre.

Doctor Who's Women and His Little Blue Box by Antoinette Winstead discusses three of the Doctor's more recent female companions: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble, placing them into the wider context of companions in general, and evaluating how they are different from most of the companions that appeared on the classic version of Doctor Who. The most critical difference alleged between the women on the "new" Doctor Who and their predecessors is the the lack of schoolgirl naivete, which is replaced instead by a level of intelligence and drive sufficient to meet the Doctor on equal terms. Winstead references Miriam Polster's "heroine's journey", asserting that each of the new companions makes her way through this process during her sojourn with the Doctor, and then sets about evaluating each one's story in turn. Just the fact that Winstead can have a story arc to evaluate for these characters is a substantial indication of the difference between them and many of the companions from the classic version of the show and supports the truth of Windtsead's arguments. Overall, this is one of the most interesting essays in the volume, as it clearly marks how the new show took the original, kept the fundamental core of what it was, and then built upon it to produce a final product that was so much more than what went before.

Following Winstead's exploration of the changes in the nature of the Doctor's female companions, Sherry Ginn's essay Spoiled for Another Life focuses on the one companion from "classic" Who that was most unlike her contemporaries and most like the companions from the "new" Who: Sara Jane Smith. Ginn notes that Smith was a revolutionary character when she was introduced in 1973 - a woman who was not willing to simply be a damsel in distress, and gives a brief indication that this character trait was in part the result of Elizabeth Slaydon's insistence. But in her rush to gush over the character, Ginn glosses over the dismissive way that Pertwee's Doctor treated Sarah Jane, and only briefly mentions how her character devolved into a damsel figure during her tenure with Barker's Doctor. On the other hand, Smith is the only companion character to have two different spin-off series designed to showcase her, and is one of the few characters brought from the "classic" Who into the "new" Who, in large part I suspect because she is one of the few classic characters who would be considered palatable by the modern audience. Ginn's evaluation of Smith moves on to evaluating her character development in the context of Jean Piaget's Cognitive-Development Theory, fitting Smith's choices into this framework. Oddly, after singing the praises of an independent liberal woman, Ginn proceeds to explain how Smith's "wrong" choices led her to make compensatory choices in the course of the Sarah Jane Adventures, seeking a husband and surrounding herself with adoptive children. To fit Sarah Jane's life into an early twentieth concept, Ginn has to point out how the character had everything that made her unique stripped away, a fairly depressing observation.

The final essay in the volume is Lynnette Porter's Chasing Amy, which continues the analysis of the Doctor's recent female companions by focusing very closely on Amy Pond, one of the most recent and most sexualized companions. Porter traces Amy's story from the Doctor's first appearance in her backyard while she is a small child through her resurrection of the Doctor with the force of her memory at her wedding to to Rory. The essay focuses on how Amy is both like and unlike previous companions that have appeared on the "new" Who seasons, evaluating her character traits in light of her predecessors. Porter also comments on Amy Pond's more overt sexuality, and what she clearly believes to be the unjustified criticism leveled at the show as a result. When combined with the previous two essays, Porter's work gives a thorough and comprehensive overview of the evolution of the companion characters in recent years up through the end of the eleventh Doctor's first season. For any Doctor Who fan, this trilogy of essays should be required reading.

In fact, most of the essays in this book will provide illumination for even the most die-hard Doctor Who fan. Covering topics ranging from fandom, to themes presented through the show's history, to explorations of individual episodes and characters, the collection of essays contained in Doctor Who in Time and Space gives a wide ranging account of the series, although the focus does tend to be on the more recent incarnation of the show. However, even fans of the older version will find much to like here, and all fans are likely to find something new that they didn't know before, a thought-provoking angle they had not previously considered, or simply something interesting in this collection. The bookshelf of a Doctor Who fan would not be complete without this book on it.

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  1. Antoinette Winstead is my professor lol

    1. @Anonymous: She wrote a very interesting essay about Doctor Who.