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[personal profile] malsperanza
*taptaptap* Is this thing on?

Haven't been here much lately. *looks around* Huhm, could use a fresh coat of paint.

This winter I finally got around to watching all the Doctor Who episodes since the show was revived, after having watched Torchwood first. Needless to say, because I am a sucker for UST and angst, I fell headfirst into the deep end of the fandom. No fandom will ever replace my original love, the UberUST and MegaAngst La Femme Nikita, in which all the characters dressed in black and talked in shades of grey and betrayed one another weekly, and Doomed Love was their stock in trade. But I had a grand time with Doctors 9 and 10, and lost my heart to Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant every bit as much as ever I did to Tom Baker (Doctor 4) when I was a kid and coveted his 16-foot scarf. (Hey, I was growing up in Chicago; a 16-foot scarf would have come in handy, some winters.)

So now I've been watching the newest season. The show is in the hands of the fellow who was its best writer, Steven Moffat. This is good: a good TV show, a literate, clever one, should be script-driven. (Cf. The Wire, the best television show in history, bar none.) And Moffat at his best really understands fantasy. He's also pretty good at speaking simultaneously to an adult and a kid audience, which is not easy. The rest of this won't be of much interest to people who haven'y seen or never liked Doctor Who.It's behind a cut.

Moffat likes masks, automata, living statues. The most recent episode has creepy Smilers, automata in booths like the old funfair clockwork fortune-tellers of the fairground midway. Only these are sort of alive, and some of them are definitely alive. Even better, one is Janus-faced, with a clockwork Smiler maskface on one side of his head and an extremely handsome but evil Minder humanface on the other. (Boy do I hope that guy turns up in some future episode.)

These sorts of tropes, together with talking dolls and marionettes and ventriloquists' dummies, belong to classic folktales and horror stories, rather than sci fi per se. They establish the key point that the division between what is living and what is a thing is permeable. Moffat is much given to statements like "Don't blink. Blink and you're dead" and explaining that houses have rooms that you can only see out of the corner of your eye, and that the cracks in walls are rifts in time-space. Here Be Monsters. Things that appear to be inanimate have lives (often not happy ones) and thoughts (often not nice ones), and therefore we should take the universe a lot more seriously than we do.

This is Tolkien country, where there is a willow grows aslant a brook not in order to be picturesque and pastoral, but to eat you if you are so foolish as to come too near. As Gandalf says, there are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world. And deep space is one of those places; the human heart is another. In Rivendell, Frodo notes, there is the memory of ancient things; in Lorien the ancient things still live on in the waking world. And as Hamlet remarks (perhaps because he is familiar with the ways of willow-trees), there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of a rationalist. Moffat knows that the scariest things are not chainsaws and tentacles but shadows and cracked plaster, and that the scariest things are also the most wonderful, wonderful and yet again wonderful. He knows because like most good British writers, he learned about enchanted forests from Arden and the woods near Athens; about trees that imprison mysteries from a cloven pine; about the magical transformations that occur in the deep places from the tolling of a sea-nymph's bell. The Shakespearean echoes are all over Doctor Who. (And as an aside: It's thought that the Forest of Arden is Shakespeare's reinvention of the Ardennes, the vast forest of ancient Belgium and France whose name in Roman times was Arduenna Silva, forest of the goddess Arduinna. In the Song of Roland it is a place of nightmares, akin to Dante's Selva Oscura, the dark wood of life in which we wander lost; in our own era as in Roland's time it has been the place of deadly battle: a place of nightmares. Forests, like starfields, are deep places.)

Sci fi is full of this inanimate-monster stuff, usually recast in a man-vs.-machine trope: robots, computers run amok, sentient weapons; in Doctor who they are Cybermen and Daleks, enemies who could not be more tedious, and keep reappearing only because fans of the old show are sentimental sorts, nostalgic for their own childhood fancies--as indeed am I.

But Moffat writes in an older, more organic key. He knows that what makes Doctor Who a wonderful invention is not its CGI (which still cannot match American production), nor its endless parade of invading aliens and evil masterminds, but its magical central character.

The Daleks of my childhood were absurd, bumbling creatures who rolled about on casters, intoning Ex-Ter-Min-Ate, and then were clobbered by the Doctor. The show was fun precisely because it was so tacky. The actors, all dignity abandoned, rolled around in studio sets made of papier maché and battled with rubber garden hoses and pepperpots on wheels. By comparison, The Avengers was the height of sophistication and The Prisoner was the last word in stylish, paranoid surrealism. In retrospect I think the Doctor Who of the 1960s and 1970s was an artifact of postwar Britain: poorer and more provincial than perhaps we realized, still coming to terms with the sudden evaporation of its empire, and not yet prepared for the multicultural flood that was about to transform it. Its evil machines and mad scientists were understood from the outset to be defeatable--indeed, already defeated. What mattered was that the Doctor was all Sciencey and smart. He was a product of the culture that had produced Newton and Faraday, Eddington and Hawking and Halley and Hooke. And of course Darwin. And he was more: As he never hesitated to point out, he was clever--quick-witted and cunning and willing to cheat and lie if necessary. He was and he is sly; and full of quirks and foibles, not least of which is a taste in clothes that runs to motley.

The Doctor, in short, is my old friend the Trickster, and a classic withholding hero. More about this some other time, because I never tire of talking about the Trickster, in all his marvelous incarnations.

Moffat's Doctor Who is best when it is not overly concerned with technology or the military preoccupations of empires. These are the themes of Star Wars and Star Trek, highly dependent on expensive post-production for their success. Moffat has Weeping Angel statues (with teeth; but don't blink) and clockwork courtiers in smirking masks, not to mention spaceships whose engines are human hearts and whose comm systems are human eyes. This may be the stuff of nightmares, but it is also the stuff of dreams.

Well, it all hangs on how good the character of the Doctor is: how well-written and acted, how unpredictable and intriguing, how charismatic and grounded. And this changes every time the Doctor regenerates. The show was fortunate in several of its actors, not least the last two, both of whom had strong Shakespeare chops, including that wicked, magical ability to switch from comedy to tragedy and back again on a dime. Not sure yet about the newest one, but I have hopes. At any rate, he's being given good words to say and good things to do. (Although I really wish they would drop the "Geronimo!" thing, which to these USian ears has an unpleasantly military-macho overtone.)

One of the things that I think (I hope!) is percolating in this season's arc is greater attention to the Tardis. I love the Tardis and have done so since childhood. I didn't realize, as a kid, that when it was originally conceived, the Tardis was supposed to be an everyday object--amusingly mundane. To me it was always peculiar and distinctive. Phone booths in my world were glass and steel, not painted bright colors (neither red nor blue). Above all, I loved the idea of its infinitude. Like a dollhouse it contained every imaginable detail; it was, as Donne says, a little world made cunningly. Donne is talking about himself, there--or any human being. Whitman says it too: I am large; I contain multitudes. The Tardis, that is, has never been just a spaceship; it has always been a character, albeit usually a silent one.

The Tardis belongs to the same family of furniture as the Wardrobe in the Narnia stories: it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. Nothing new there--the observation has been made countless times over the past 40 years. But ever since its redecoration in the (otherwise unwatchable) TV movie in the 1990s, it has also been something else: a Cabinet of Wonders. Who doesn't love a cupboard full of unicorn's horns, and lost moons, and the recipe for crispy grolak? Moffat excels at such ideas. He's already given us the Sixth Room (the one in your own house that you can only see when you're not looking), and the Crack in the Wall, and of course the Library World. Which is the same magical labyrinth as the Library in Borges and Eco's The Name of the Rose, haunted by the same devouring shadows.

So the Tardis has had a bit of a redesign, and now has a more complex interior economy (staircases! leading to other rooms! And buttons on the console labeled "Avanti" and "Indietro." And a Time Rotor that resembles a giant glass fractional distillation flask. (It also resembles a phallus, but let that go.) The Tardis is now an alchemist's laboratory, full of the apparatus of transmutation. How happy this makes me!

It also now seems to have a gender (sort of), and it is the Doctor's OTP. We've known all along that the Tardis sometimes chooses where and when it will land, or otherwise has a will and personal agency. I've long thought that the Tardis was potentially a great source of stories for Doctor Whothat would get the show out of its repeated themes of invasion from outer space, visits to costumed historical moments, and mad scientists. I loved the episode in the Tom Baker years in which he meditated in a medieval ivy-covered cloister that was somewhere in the Tardis. I also remember a boot room or cupboard that was huge and had only one pair of boots in it. I'd like to see episodes that take place entirely inside the Tardis. The old show had lots of such scenes, although without the budget to make them look very good. But I loved the sense of labyrinthine complexity within the Doctor's home. This is something the show Farscape aimed for with its "living ship," Moya. But all we ever saw of the inside of Moya was the flight deck and a lot of corridors (actually: one corridor filmed from various directions and angles), and a couple of bedrooms or berths.

And one last comment: The revival of Doctor Who was orchestrated and largely written by Russell T Davies. In his parting episode the Doctor mentions the Time War (a recurring bit of backstory, and a great ongoing mystery). In it, he says, were unleashed the Nightmare Child, the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, and the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Mean-Whiles and Never-Weres. This is marvelous stuff, and if Steven Moffat is smart, he won't try to fill in the missing bits, or overexplain these oblique references, but will let his predecessor's creation rest as it is: an endless, labyrinthine puzzle, whose rooms are full of nothing and of possibilities. The language is that of Lewis Carroll. And it reminds me of that other master of of fairytale nonsense, James Thurber. In The White Deer Thurber invents a bungling king named Clode, who encounters a woods wizard in the forest one day, a member of the same somewhat hapless fraternity as Schmendrick in Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn.

"Ho!" said the King, glaring at the wizard. "Have I not seen you otherwhere than here?"

"You have seen me otherwhen than now," said the sorcerer, plucking a pansy and tossing it into the air where it became a butterfly and fluttered away through the trees.

Gotta watch out for those forests; they'll get you every time.

Date: 2010-04-13 05:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] darknote.livejournal.com
i always thought that it was an unfortunate thing that the TARDIS wasn't explored in full in the new series or that the TARDIS itself wasn't used as a plot device in the new series overall. Part of that i know is economy; they only had the one set to deal with and to create a temporary set that would have functioned as a plot for one episode and make it convincing that it's a part of the TARDIS in this day and age (i'm thinking of Invasion of Time here) would be difficult. The other part of it i think is that it just didn't enter into rusty's mode of thinking to create a crisis in the TARDIS. The TARDIS in the new series is very much just a fancy car; it serves to transport from one place to another or create cool effect to chase brides in runaway taxis, but it's not a Place of Crisis.

and it's a nice parallel to compare that to Moya or Talyn, where there were multiple episodes that either dealt with the ship being the ship or all took place inside the ship because oddly enough it was probably more complicated and expensive to do an on location deal with farscape rather than just deal with the sets of Moya that they had, whereas with Doctor Who it's the opposite.

Honestly, i don't think that it's going to change for Doctor Who; regardless of the fact that the set is bigger and the TARDIS is more eclectic and whatever, i feel like Moffat, like rusty, will not find it practical to try to write extended scenes in the TARDIS beyond the console room. Maybe in the future series if they're able to save budget to build a few other sets and they can come up with some reason why there would be a crisis in the TARDIS that they'd have to solve in 45 minutes that would resonate with the audience they're trying to reach, but i'm not holding my breath.

Date: 2010-04-13 05:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] malsperanza.livejournal.com
I have hopes for Tardis episodes with Moffat, because of the new stairways and some hints in interviews.

Given RTD's penchant for making all his crises huge and definitive (Oh, let's wipe out Gallifrey; that won't be a problem later when we want to bring back the Time Lords, will it?), I'm just as glad. I did love the one glimpse we got of the wardrobe room with its spiral staircases.

Moffat has already given us the idea of rooms that become invisible when you look at them, and cracks in walls that open onto infinite space-time, so I think it's possible to create a Tardis room for one episode that is never seen again & need not be a permanent set. (Old Who did that all the time, IIRC.) I would be surprised if he doesn't turn his attention to the Tardis, after all that expensive redesign. There are pitfalls, of course: heaven preserve us from seeing anyone's bedroom, or of discovering too much about the Doctor's domestic habits.

But I liked the 8th Doctor's sitting room, and I loved the little moment in the Agatha Christie episode when 10 pulled out a trunk from storage under the floor that contained (among other things) the glass ball that imprisoned the Carrionites--just, youknow, lying around. Nice bit of continuity there; good world-building. (And a bust of Caesar, because it was the C trunk.) I wouldn't mind seeing a meal on the Tardis: what would that be like? Tea and bananas? Carrot juice and marjouls? Lime soda and fish fingers? Or nectar and ambrosia?

Trickier is the idea of the Tardis having a personality. I would not want to see too much anthropomorphizing of it. Clearly the Doctor loves it, but does he love it the way a guy loves his car or the way Moya's crew love her? Hard to say.

I was dismayed when Eleven called it "Dear," but then in the 3rd episode he calls Churchill "Dear" too, so I'm thinking it's just a verbal quirk of his, not a term of endearment of the sort one uses with a spouse.

Date: 2010-04-13 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] darknote.livejournal.com
the 8th doctor's sitting room *was* pretty cool, although i was very confused by that TARDIS when i initially saw it.

re: the TARDIS having personality, i almost see the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS as being similar to Pilot and Moya, actually, but in a different sort of way. Consider how in the Christmas Invasion where the translator circuit of the TARDIS wasn't functioning until the Doctor woke up from unconsciousness. And i seem to remember in the old series them talking about how TARDIS's were linked to their owner or something, supposedly making it so that no one else could fly it, but that's been contradicted several times.

re: wiping out gallifrey and bring back the time lords... oy vey. first i guess locking the time war didn't stop the lone dalek from coming out then the dalek emperor then oh the cult of skaro escaped then davros then the time lords... i was thinking that if rusty kept on, Romana or Leela or Omega could have pulled out of the woodwork somewhere in series five and there would have been a pretty poor plot excuse to bring them back just for the sake of bringing them back.

Date: 2010-04-13 10:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] malsperanza.livejournal.com
I like the idea of symbiosis between the Doctor and the Tardis. I always found Pilot a bit dull as a character, but I take your main point, and there are certainly hints of it. Moya comes across to me as a rather placid and star whaleish creature; I imagine the Tardis as far more quirky, possibly even wacky--perhaps a bit like Maude in "Harold and Maude": outdated, past its prime, but completely self-willed and eternally young.

Yeah, the 8th Doctor's Tardis certainly was ... big, and the cloister seemed to have been replaced by a nuclear reactor core, which was WTF. But I liked the vision of the Doctor at home, reading HG Wells (presumably for the lolz) and drinking tea as he hurtled upside down through wormholes.

I have some thoughts about the Time War, but I'll post them separately.

Date: 2010-04-13 11:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] surliminal.livejournal.com
I always thnought of the Dr's relationship with the Tardis as more like with a very dear and long loved and reciprocally useful pet, a dog like a retriever more than a cat (cats NEVER do waht they'e told! though there are bits of both. I mean for heaven's sake he *strokes* it. But no, not a lover.

ps most this Tardis history of which we speak is usefully recapped in this month's DWM..

Date: 2010-04-13 06:51 pm (UTC)
kaffyr: The TARDIS at Giverny (TARDIS at Giverny)
From: [personal profile] kaffyr
This is a marvelous, elegant, and beautiful contemplation on Moffat, on Who, on magic and faerie, and on my dimensionally transcendent girlcrush, the TARDIS. I'm so impressed with this essay - may I link to it in my own journal? I know I'll have more coherent things to say after I've had a chance to digest all this (must get back to work now, alas), but I had to thank you for writing it.

Date: 2010-04-13 07:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] malsperanza.livejournal.com
Link away! I am flattered.

Date: 2010-04-14 08:36 pm (UTC)
kaffyr: The TARDIS says hello (Free for Use of the Public)
From: [personal profile] kaffyr
Late, but done, and many thanks!

Date: 2010-04-14 10:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sensiblecat.livejournal.com
A very thoughtful, lyrical and well-read essay. I love it when people link Who and Shakespeare (apparently there was a Big Finish story once based on The Tempest, starring Sophie Aldred). When I wrote fic I found Shakespeare cropping up all the time.

I thought it had long since been established that the TARDIS was female? I like the way her identity is so malleable with so much for the imagination to fill in, yet she remains a constant in the Doctor's life. I did find Matt's "sexy thing" remark didn't quite gel with me - I've always seen it as a much deeper relationship that transcends the physical (Although I could certainly imagine the Doctor getting an orgasm from driving it..and could long before Tennant started using his foot for the controls).

Date: 2010-04-14 02:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] malsperanza.livejournal.com
The Doctor has always called the Tardis "she," I believe, but I took that to be like a guy calling his car "she" or ships being called "she" even when they are the USS Chester Nimitz. The Tardis can only be really female if she has gender--that was what I meant. But I'm no scholar of Old Who and have no idea what the established canon is from then. Is there some more specific bit of info about it?

I imagine Tardises are grown not through sexual reproduction, but more like the way crystals grow, through nucleation--or some corals, through cell division. That's more technical than it needs to be--I doubt the writers have given a great deal of thought to the rules of Tardis creation.

I didn't much like the "You sexy thing" comment, but it did seem to me to be a remark one makes to one's car rather than one's girlfriend--or maybe to some brilliant piece of architecture or computer code. "Sexy" has come to mean "ingenious" in some contexts. But it's that comment (and others like it) that led me to think of the Doctor as youngish. He seemed to be looking at the Tardis like a new hotrod or a Nimbus 2000 Quiddich broomstick.

My sense of the Tardis having gender (sort of)had more to do with him calling her "Dear," which is not something you say to your car, but might say to a person you knew well. (But then he calls Churchill "Dear" too, so it's just a habit.)

That the Tardis is the Doctor's OTP is emerging from other things, as we've noted: the fact that they regenerate together; that when 10 died, the Tardis nearly did too; that when 10 was unconscious after regenerating from 9, the Tardis could not do translations; and of course the fact that the Doctor is happiest and safest in the Tardis, yet does not treat it as his home--that is, not as a house. But beyond that, as you say, there's little to really go on.

Date: 2010-04-14 11:41 pm (UTC)
clocketpatch: A small, innocent-looking red alarm clock, stuck forever at 10 to 7. (8 Zagreus)
From: [personal profile] clocketpatch
Hi! I was linked here via [personal profile] kaffyr and must say that this essay is lyrical, interesting and intelligent. I love reading things like this put together by people who are able to draw so many references together (and hope you don't mind if I friend you as a result).

I've always seen the TARDIS as the Doctor's OTP, but not in a romantic sense; really, I think she's more like a mother to him. It's implied that the TARDIS is older than the Doctor, that he stole her, and also that she's been looking out for him. There's a Hartnell episode, The Edge of Destruction where the Doctor accidentally flicks the fast return switch and sends the TARDIS hurtling towards a star or a black hole or something - the TARDIS, sensing danger, starts possessing crew members and making varios strange things happen. I've only seen it the once, but I remember at the end of it the Doctor coming to the conclusion that his ship was A. alive B. sentient and C. trying to warn him of intending doom.

I'm not sure the Time Lords in general knew how alive their ships were, or if the TARDIS is just special, or if the Doctor is special enough that she'll reveal a bit of her true nature to him, in any case, I agree completely and absolutely that another TARDIS-centric storyline would not go amiss.

Date: 2010-04-15 05:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] malsperanza.livejournal.com
Ten in particular seemed to need a mother figure, didn't he? Especially as he seems to have condemned his actual mother to death (twice). For the most part, the Tardis seems to be a refuge for the Doctor, rather than a person, but it also occasionally is a kind of partner. He seems able to fly it partly by a kind of symbiotic connection.

I have seen very little of the Hartnell DW--I should watch that one, sounds interesting.

Date: 2010-04-17 09:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] radiantbaby.livejournal.com
What an excellent essay. Thank you for sharing!

P.S. Oh, and I love your icon. Antinous!

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