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*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.
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malsperanza

August 2010

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