Archive for Literary Analysis

EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks Scary? (Part 2)

Wow! It’s been a long time since part one! Sorry about that! I’ve been getting new jobs, moving, finding homes for my now-stray kitties. But enough excuses, let’s get to the Daleks.

In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indicate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridiculous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are supposed to be scary: namely, that they are modeled after the terrifying Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

While science fiction is often posited as a kind of “what if” genre—What if aliens landed? What if we had interplanetary spaceships? What if we could genetically engineer people?—I don’t think that’s a great definition for the genre. After all, not all “what if” questions have anything to do with science, technology, or ray guns. My own definition of science fiction, based on my time as a fan and scholar of it, is pretty broad. I consider something science fiction if it has all or most of the following characteristics:

1. It is about sci­ence or the prac­tice of science.

2. It stays within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws orit is con­cerned with appear­ing within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws. This means that if it tries to explain its real­ity within the con­fines of our own nat­ural world, even if this is tech­nob­a­b­ble or lamp­shad­ing (á la Doc­tor Who’s “magic door” in The Girl in the Fire­place), then it could be sci­ence fic­tion. I don’t agree with def­i­n­i­tions that say sci­ence fic­tion must be strictly pos­si­ble in the real world or accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary sci­ence, because that is a ridicu­lously lim­it­ing def­i­n­i­tion, and would exclude sci­ence fic­tion like Star Trek, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Doc­tor Who (actu­ally, pretty much any sci­ence fic­tion that uses time travel), Armaged­don, Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s Her­land, and Red Dwarf. What these nar­ra­tives have in com­mon is not that they are sci­en­tif­i­cally fea­si­ble, but that they are con­cerned with mate­r­ial real­ity, and explain their real­i­ties as the same as ours. Of course, the extent to which they are concerned with this explanation will vary.

3. It forces the reader to leave the famil­iar world of here-and-now. This is the char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most often absent, but I think, when it appears, it is extra­or­di­nar­ily impor­tant. When this char­ac­ter­is­tic is present, it becomes imper­a­tive that the nar­ra­tive adhere to the second characteristic listed above, because this means the narrative can make the famil­iar unfa­mil­iar, which can func­tion in a num­ber of ways. By mak­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our cul­ture, for exam­ple, dis­ap­pear (like gen­der or racism), sci­ence fic­tion can denat­u­ral­ize those con­cepts within our real­ity. By paint­ing a utopia (like Star Trek), it can make that utopia seem not so out of our reach. It can take a neg­a­tive human behav­ior, and com­pletely exag­ger­ate or trans­form it; Dis­trict 9 por­trays how racism dehu­man­izes peo­ple, in a really stark and lit­eral (and thus unfa­mil­iar) way. With­out exist­ing within our own real­ity, how­ever, that lit­eral dehu­man­iza­tion loses some of its power.

If a narrative has this characteristic, but does not adhere to the second, it is very likely fantasy.

4. It is con­cerned with the mate­r­ial nature of human­ity or human society.*

Because science fiction is a literature about science, about the material condition of humanity, it is a well-suited space for authors to explore the anxieties and concerns we feel about our relationship with science and technology. To say science fiction is a “what if” genre ignores this relationship it has with the cultural identity of science; it suggests that science fiction is about prediction, caution, prescription. (“Don’t create a society based on genetic manipulation and bodily fitness!” warns Gattica, while 1984 cautions us on the dangers of the police state. Star Trekshows us a utopian future, which somehow came about with a government run by the military.) This is a shallow way to look at science fiction, which is very rarely any good at predicting the future. What science fiction does do well is give us a glimpse into our cultures’ view of science: what scares us about it, what makes us anxious about it, what excites us about it, what role we think it should play in our society.

***

H. G. Wells’s War of the Worldswas published in 1898, the tail-end of the Victorian era. The 19th century saw a transformation in the culture of science in Britain. Science went from being a gentleman’s hobby, with the “dirty work” done by underappreciated and uncredited middle- and lower-class laborers, to an institutionalized profession, with researchers who got their hands dirty for money, funded by universities and the government. Science fiction of the era was often concerned with the corporeality and dirtiness of science, distrusting the body and the material, as opposed to the cleaner and more rational mind and spirit. The fact that the material of science is detritus (flesh, organs, blood, brains, plant matter, insect corpses, dirt, rock) made science a problematic institution, made more acceptable by removing the gentleman scholar from the material practice of science and limiting him to theoretical work. The fact that observational science relied on the imperfect instruments of the human body (eyes, fingers, skin, eardrums) was also of concern, made more acceptable by supplementing them with machines like microscopes, telescopes, chronometers, daguerreotypes, and scales.

This distrust of the material and the body carried over into anxieties about evolution, which was something much of Wells’s fiction is concerned with, including War, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In War of the Worlds and a related piece he published in 1893, “The Man of the Year Million,” Wells suggests that our suspicion of the physical and glorification of the mental could actually lead to the end of humanity as we know it. In “The Man of the Year Million,” a tongue-in-cheek prediction, he argues that

man is the creature of the brain; he will live by intelligence, and not by physical strength, if he live at all. So that much that is purely animal about him is being, and must be, beyond all question, suppressed in his ultimate development.

In the article, he outlines a course of eventual evolution, in which humans will lose much of their bodies, and will end up mere brains, in helpless, useless bodies that consist only of heads and hands.

We notice this decay of the animal part around us now, in the loss of teeth and hair, in the dwindling hands and feet of men, in their smaller jaws, and slighter mouth and ears. Man now does by wit and machinery and verbal agreement what he once did by bodily toil; for once he had to catch his dinner, capture his wife, run away from his enemies, and continually exercise himself, for love of himself, to perform these duties well. But now all this is changed. Cabs, trains, trams, render speed unnecessary, the pursuit of food becomes easier; his wife is no longer hunted, but rather, in view of the crowded matrimonial market, seeks him out. One needs wits now to live, and physical activity is a drug, a snare even; it seeks artificial outlets and overflows in games.

He argues that technological innovation will guide our evolution, and that as we create more ingenious devices to take care of our bodily functions, those functions will cease to be possible in our bodies.

[Man] has a new organ, a mandible not of irreparable tissue, but of bone and steel—a knife and fork. There is no reason why things should stop at partial artificial division thus afforded; there is every reason, on the contrary, to believe my statement that some cunning exterior mechanism will presently masticate and insalivate his dinner, relieve his diminishing salivary glands and teeth, and at last altogether abolish them.

All that will be left of the future human is his brain and his hands, since Wells believed the hands to be “the teacher and interpreter of the brain.” Because Victorians believed that emotions were seated in the body, not the mind, since they were far too messy and not intellectual, Wells also pictured these future humans as emotionless and cruelly self-serving.

And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter.

It’s a horrifying vision, in which technology and intellect have, through the processes of evolution, done entirely away with the body, empathy, and emotion. It reminds me a bit of the way modern science fiction will romanticize about people becoming pure consciousness in computers or online; we haven’t lost our desire to be rid of the bodies that tie us to the material world, that cry and shit and piss and digest and orgasm and bleed. Our bodies make us uncomfortable, make us feel dirty and vulnerable. But Wells didn’t think that transcending our bodies through evolution was a good thing at all; the vision in “The Man of the Year Million” is purposefully horrifying. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, that vision came back to haunt us in his The War of the Worlds.

All the things that were scary about the future man are what is scary about the Martians in War. They are also great brains, with only eyes and hand-like tentacles. They are vastly intelligent and emotionless. But what is far more terrifying than their inability to feel is their technological prowess. Like the future human, they have replaced their bodies with machines. While Wells only explicitly imagined eating machines in “The Man of the Year Million,” he imagined the Martians as a people with machines instead of bodies, which they can change for the purpose like so many changes of clothes. The machine body we actually see is the spider-like tripod:

A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.

In these machines, the Martians literally eat human bodies; they drain them of their blood for sustenance, like vampires. And Wells draws a direct connection between the lack of a material body and the lack of emotions. Their reliance on technological bodies makes them capable of escaping emotions altogether. By pairing War with “The Man of the Year Million,” we can see that Wells is trying to flesh out a fear that the end-point of human evolution is the destruction of the human body and thus of emotion, compassion, and morality. By valuing intellect, science, and technology, we could lose our humanity. Corporeality, Wells suggests, is a constitutive part of humanity, and the use of the machine to overcome the limits of the body could lead to a loss of our compassionate natures. Wells values the human body and its material nature, the way that our bodies cause us to depend on one another, the way that our bodies tie us to the world we live in.

***

Okay! So why am I talking so much about Wells’s Martians? Because I think the Daleks were modeled after the Martians.** After all, they’re bodiless brains who lack all emotion and compassion, and they have replaced organic bodies with machine ones. They even look like the Martians: gray, gross, and full of tentacles.

Kaled_mutant

The machine body comes apart to reveal the organic body of a Dalek, from the “Dalek” episode of Doctor Who. The Dalek is a mucous-covered, gray mass, with a brain at the top and multiple tentacles at the bottom. He has one eye. Source.

Unlike the Martians, the Daleks are genocidal, but their inability to feel compassion, coupled with their cyborg nature, makes them dead ringers. (The Martians were actually kind of scary in part because they didn’t hate humans. We were merely in their way as they colonized a new planet. Cold fuckers, those Martians.)

But, I still don’t think the Daleks are scary, because I think they are poorly executed versions of the Martians. A lot of the things that made the Martians frightening are missing from the Daleks, in particular their machine bodies. Like the Dalekanium body of the Daleks, the Martians are hard to kill or disable. But that’s where the comparison seems to end. The small Dalek machines are slow and clunky, whereas the Martian machines are terrifyingly huge, fast, and efficient.

  Woking_tripod

A shiny 23-foot statue of the Martian tripod machine from Wells’s War of the Worlds. This sculpture was designed by Michael Condron and is located in Woking, Surrey in England. The design is true to the source, with a small body, two metal tentacles, and three long, flexible, mobile jointed legs. This thing would own the Daleks. Source.

The Martians were also quite alien and removed; for all the hate the Daleks seem to spend on the Doctor and the rest of the universe, they sure do talk to them a lot. The Martians never bothered to communicate with the humans, because the humans were food. It’d be like if we started having conversations with cows. The Daleks spend so much wasted time and energy on talking to the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks obviously don’t think they’re thatsuperior to us, or they wouldn’t bother communicating. Communication necessitates seeing another being as something on (about) the same level as you; it creates a connection between the communicators. And the excessive amount of communication between the Doctor/humans and the Daleks makes the Daleks feel less threatening.

And as a viewer of only NuWho, I’m starting to wonder how the Daleks got powerful in the first place. The advantages of being a brain in a machine is supposed to be that you’re smart. But the Daleks seem pretty stupid a lot of the time. They waste time talking and scheming. They get fooled by jammie dodgers. They get captured by rich morons. They spend more time yelling EXTERMINATE than they do actually killing people.

The Daleks just don’t do it for me the way the Martians do. They don’t have the cruel, heartless grace, the efficient killing and maneuvering power. They don’t feel alien and utterly unintelligible.

The Martian model makes it clear that the Daleks could have been frightening. But they simply weren’t well-executed, and lack the terror of Wells’s Martians.

______________

* (This definition, altered slightly, originally appeared in my post on Eli.) You’ll notice I don’t have any­thing about tech­nol­ogy in this def­i­n­i­tion, and that is for a rea­son. While most people’s con­cep­tions of sci­ence fic­tion have a big focus on tech­nol­ogy, I find that focus prob­lem­atic. This kind of def­i­n­i­tion is invested in the idea that old tech­nolo­gies are not tech­nolo­gies that mat­ter (in the sense that we no longer think of them as tech­nolo­gies) or count in sci­ence fic­tion. But it is wrong to sug­gest that books, pens, print­ing presses, chairs, cars, scis­sors, cameras, alarm clocks, DVD play­ers, elec­tric lights, laun­dry deter­gent, air­planes, ad nau­seum are not tech­nolo­gies that sig­nif­i­cantly shape the human con­di­tion in many parts of the world.

** Thanks to Amy Montz for originating this idea!

______________

Works Cited

Wells, H. G. “The Man of the Year Million.” Pall Mall Gazette6 November 1893: 3.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003.

Kingdom and Katarina

"The whole plot? In that tiny box, Doctor?" "Mmm, yes, my boy..."

The Daleks’ Masterplan is one of the most sprawling, epic, flawed, fascinating and utterly space opera-y Doctor Who stories of all time. It was the fourth ever Dalek story, screening as part of the third season of the show in 1965-6, and it marks the end of Doctor Who being a safe kids show.

I had heard so much about it in my years as a Doctor Who fan – I knew that it was the first story that killed the companion (and it did it twice), that it was twelve (and an extra) episodes long, not only a record at the time but for many decades to follow, I knew about the weird Christmas episode, and Nicholas Courtney playing a character called Bret Vyon, and all manner of plot details.

If you feel knowing all the plot twists & who dies in The Daleks Masterplan would spoil enjoyment of the story (it doesn’t, honestly, it can only help) then please look away now.

Jean Marsh now, with current Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan

It wasn’t until I actually listened to the story (available as an audio recording as most of the original TV serial was wiped) that I saw all of those facts in context, however, and began to fall in love with it as a story. Yes, even (especially) the silly Christmas episode.

I was reminded of that love again recently when listening to The Anachronauts, a great Sara-and-Steven Big Finish Companion Chronicle, set in between a few acts of The Daleks’ Masterplan, and featuring the greatly talented voices of Jean Marsh and Peter Purves. (as those of you who tuned in for my Upstairs Downstairs post know, I’m on a Jean Marsh kick at the moment)

In the behind the scenes bits of the Anachronauts, they mentioned the audiobook of the novelisation of The Daleks’ Masterplan, read by both Peter and Jean, and I was interested because they are both so very good at audio work – Peter Purves does a killer Hartnell impression which really brings the story alive. Also, it occurred to me, while the audio-only version of TDM did drag on a bit at times, making me wish I could see the televised version, the good old Target novelisation, which I’d never read, might prove otherwise.

Luckily for me, both volumes of the audio book: Daleks: Mission To the Unknown and Daleks: The Mutation of Time, were available at my local library. I’ve just finished listening to the first of these, which brings me up to the middleish of the Great Doctor Who Space Opera.

I’ll start by saying that the performances are, as I had expected, brilliant. But the format of the audiobook really brought home to me how excellent the work by Big Finish is, because this BBC production was far more by-the-numbers. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh take turns reading large sections of the book, which means they end up at times reading each other’s parts – a Big Finish audio book or two-hander narrative play, like The Suffering starring Peter Purves as Steven and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, would always edit in the actual actor playing his or her own voice. A lot more work, but far greater effect to the reader!

I definitely felt like Sara Kingdom was given a disservice by the audiobook at times by this method – Peter Purves does not do as good a Jean Marsh impression as he does William Hartnell, and by necessity he is busily trying to make his voice sound less male in those scenes and thus ends up making Sara sound a lot more wet and passive than she actually is – our kickass Emma Peel in space.

Then there’s the book itself (or themselves) – both volumes were written by John Peel and it’s important to remember that authors tended to take quite a lot of liberty when writing the novelisations – that’s part of the fun of a Target, you don’t quite know what you’re going to get, whether it’s sudden scenes in the Doctor’s POV, plot developments being switched around, authors explaining motives that weren’t quite clear in the story, or on one memorable occasion, the Doctor’s entire Trojan adventure being told as if through the eyes of Homer, who was mysteriously not present in any of those scenes during the televised version.

But I can’t help noticing that Peel’s version of the story, while it rattles along with great pace and invests the villains with some marvellous motivation and character work, isn’t very kind to two rather important characters in the story: Sara Kingdom, and Katarina.

Poor Katarina. Possibly the companion least remembered by fandom as a whole – except for her death, which makes her the first Doctor Who companion to be sacrificed to lazy writing. I was quite intrigued by her on my first listen to The Daleks’ Masterplan, and found her to be a much more interesting character than that book I have by Peter Haining made out. (there’s a nice lament for the mishandling of Katarina here)

But oh, John Peel’s novelisation puts paid to any hint of that. While Katarina acts no differently in the book than it sounded like she did on screen, the other characters are constantly thinking about how stupid she is. I don’t mean once or twice. CONSTANTLY. The three men around her: the Doctor and Steven and then Bret Vyon (who joins the TARDIS crew by holding them at gunpoint, but falls instantly in love with them and joins their merry band, only occasionally remembering to point guns at them again at regular intervals) simply cannot shut up their inner commentary about the dumbness of Katarina. At one point, the author is particularly meta, having the Doctor think what a mistake it is to travel with a companion from a pre-technological era, which was the offical production reason for jettisoning the character almost as soon as she had arrived.

"If you won't be BFFs with me, Doctor, I can give you the address of my ancestor the Brig."

Vicki, played by Maureen O’Brien, had been let go at very short notice (we never hear an explanation given for that one!) and as they wrote her out in the story set during the Trojan War, they replaced her with a handmaiden who was in the right place at the wrong time, and had barely featured in the story.

The story goes that the production crew realised their mistake instantly, that a companion from pre-industrial time who saw time travel and space ships as evidence of gods and magic, would never work. So they wrote her out early on in the Daleks’ Masterplan, “replacing” her with Sara Kingdom.

None of which is, as it happens, reflective of the story we see. For a start, there is no way Sara is a replacement for Katarina, except as being the token female character, because they are so deeply different, and serve the story in different ways. Also it was only a couple of years later that the Second Doctor was running around time and space with the bekilted Highlander Jamie, who also saw space stations and Cybermen as evidence of magic, and was an adored fan favourite as well as an extremely well-matched-to-his-Doctor companion.

"Trojan handmaidening is not unskilled labour!"

Katarina’s death, while problematic in many ways, is handled remarkably well in the story, and indeed the novelisation (as audiobook). After several episodes trying to wrap her head around an enormous cultural shift, mostly believing herself to already be dead and certainly believing the Doctor to be Zeus, she is beginning to ground herself in this bizarre science fictional world of flashing lights and gear sticks when she is taken captive by a Plot Extender Maniac who holds her at gunpoint and forces the TARDIS crew (not actually flying the TARDIS at this second but a different space ship) to go to a planet full of Daleks instead of the Earth, where they were heading to warn humanity about the impending invasion. The men are all stuck in a moral quandary, and indeed Bret is the only one who seriously considers sacrificing Katarina’s life for the greater good.

Katarina takes control. She has been shown rudimentary controls of the ship and she knows what the big button does. For the sake of the mission and saving the galaxy from evil (concepts she grasps, coming from a time of great war, even if she can’t quite take in the scale) she sends herself and her captor out of an airlock.

It’s a shocking, brutal moment. My favourite bit is that Steven says immediately ‘she got the wrong button’ and the Doctor knows otherwise. Katarina the handmaiden was a lot of things, but she sure as hell wasn’t stupid. I was pleased that this scene and the emotional followup to her death was respectful to the character in the novelisation, and that the author managed to convey the meaning of her sacrifice rather than falling back on the unpleasant character sabotage of previous chapters.

Much though I defend Katarina, and I am deeply attached to Bret and his ridiculously cuddly relationship with the Doctor and Steven (they work as a unit for several episodes) the moment that Bret Vyon’s body hits the floor is the moment that, for me, the story really gets its groove on.

Kingdom, Sara Kingdom.

The actual plot of the story (yes there is one) is that the Daleks are about to invade the solar system, and Earth’s glorious, best-beloved, deeply trusted Bloke in Charge has sold out his own people to said Daleks, because he’s evil. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and there’s a Terranium Core (magic rock) which is super rare and hard to put together, which fuels the Dalek Doomsday Plot and the Doctor accidentally gets hold of it quite early on, leaving Mavic Chen and the Daleks to run around like headless chickens trying to get it back off him. Only instead of slapstick comedy (that comes later) this first half of the story is grim, unrelentingly grim, with shootings and political conniving and only occasional bits of banter.

This is the first time that I have really put together in my head that yes, the Terry Nation who “always” wrote the same Dalek story, really is the same Terry Nation who wrote the first season of Blake’s 7. It’s space opera, shoot-you-in-the-back style.

"Even my gun belongs in Blake's 7... Avon stole his sinister smile from ME"

I love the fact that the novelisation teases out Kingdom’s reputation as Mavic Chen’s top agent, ruthless, smart, dependable. I don’t remember how much her gender was deliberately unreferenced before her appearance in the show itself, but it’s very effective here.

Of course, most people who go out of their way to listen to an audiobook of a novelisation of a 1965 Dalek story are probably the sort of people who read Programme Guides back when there were still two mm’s and an e in ‘program’ and thus already know that Kingdom is a woman. But still, it’s a nice little anachronistic touch – this is a future in which women are equal, GET THIS, 1965 TV WATCHERS, SHE’S GONNA SHOOT HER BROTHER WITHOUT BLINKING. AND THEN SHE’S GOING AFTER THE DOCTOR. SHE’S THE FUCKING TERMINATOR.

Have I mentioned how much I love Sara Kingdom?

Check out this post with screencaps of one of her extra-curricular appearances as a kickass comics character.

I was greatly disappointed that the key emotional scene in which Sara Kingdom discovers that the brother she shot was telling the truth and that it’s her employer, not her brother, who betrayed the solar system to the Daleks, and makes the painful transition from ‘person who wants to kill the Doctor’ to ‘person who asks, what’s happening, Doctor’ is read by Peter Purves and not Jean Marsh. As I mentioned earlier, his Sara Kingdom is not a patch on Jean’s (for obvious reasons), and while I really enjoy his reading, it would have had greater emotional punch in her voice. Also, returning to the author rather than the voice artist… really? I get that you’re trying to make Sara Kingdom a more likeable character, but did she REALLY cry that much in the televised version? There’s a lot of crying upon crying and wobbling lips and wailing in these scenes, and it did make me cranky.

"Did I mention I have an Emmy for stoic restraint? Just sayin."

Yes, she’s devastated. We know that. So she should be. But she’s SARA “MY MIDDLE NAME IS STOIC” KINGDOM, and it’s really noticeable that it’s the narrative, not the dialogue, that utterly depowers her, and turns her into a quivering heap of feelings.

To my great pleasure, though, after these uneven moments, the story kicked into another gear, and I ran out of things to complain about. Steven and Sara together make a great team, working with the prickly Hartnell Doctor. The Peel narrative does feel the need to repeat how handsome/pretty they both are, and how hot they are for each other, which doesn’t seem entirely necessary, but this passed the point of being mildly irritating all the way into funny for me.

I have greatly enjoyed the many hours listening to Daleks: Mission to the Unknown, especially the way that the novel format accentuates the dystopian space opera feel of the story, and makes all the planet-hopping feel more epic that it probably ever looked on the small scratchy black and white scene. I love how the whole thing has this amazing Blake’s 7 vibe, fifteen years before the Liberator turned up. The characterisation, even of minor characters, is very effective, and I feel I’m getting a much better grip on the story than I did before (though of course it’s not entirely the same story in some places). Peel’s real brilliance is in the way he puts scenes in the point of view of the Daleks, making them feel like individuals, which serves to make them more effective villains (especially in the transition to the page). He is a very good at effective adaptation.

"Stick with me, kid. We'll ditch Dodo and pick you up just in time for The Gunfighters."

Peter Purves and Jean Marsh do a fabulous job – and while an audio book in which she gets to say all of Sara’s lines and he gets to say all of Steven’s and the Doctor’s lines would have been a zillion times better, there is something to be said for the single voice doing big chunks technique, and at least we do have proper Dalek voices edited in, they’re not total barbarians. I’m looking forward to the second half of the story, not least because I’ve been reading recently about how the second half was almost completely written by NOT Terry Nation at all but Dennis Spooner, and I want to spot the seams where Blake’s 7 sneakily transforms into Red Dwarf. I’m even looking forward to the Christmas episode because COME ON, pyramids and policemen and random vaudeville! I’m totally voting that we save that one first when we really get time machines and are allowed to go back and find all the missing episodes.

I do think, however, that it was important to note the way that the novelisation imposed a few problematic gender issues on to the story that simply weren’t there in the original. I remember coming away from listening to the sound recording of the 1965 The Daleks’ Masterplan delighted at how feminist it felt, particularly the futuristic equality vibe between Steven and Sara, but also that Katarina’s death was less of a throwaway moment than I had always been led to believe. Sara Kingdom is the first female companion since the original Barbara to be a grown woman rather than a teenage girl, and she got to act as if that was the case most of the time. I will enjoy the second novelisation far more if it refrains from making her sob uncontrollably, moon romantically over Steven, or sprain an ankle.

Most importantly, when Sara dies at the end, trying to save and protect the Doctor, I want very much it to be portrayed as the epic end to her own story, not simply a plot detail used to make Steven and the Doctor sad. So no pressure at all there, Mr Peel.

*takes deep breath*
*goes in*

Doctor Who: Daleks: Mission to the Unknown
An audiobook of a TARGET novelisation (by John Peel)
of half of a lost Doctor Who story (The Daleks’ Masterplan) from 1965-66.
Read by Jean Marsh, Peter Purves, with Dalek warblings by Nicholas Briggs
BBC Audio

[cross-posted from tansyrr.com]

Companions in Comics: Miranda, the Doctor’s Daughter

This post contains spoilers for Lance Parkin’s novel Father Time and the comic Miranda.

A girl in school uniform stands surrounded by aliens.

The first issue of Miranda, published by Comeuppance Comics.

How might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? One answer to this question is offered by Miranda (2003), a comic devoted to the Doctor’s daughter.

My previous three posts focused on companions in Doctor Who Magazine. Miranda is a very different kettle of fish. The publication was launched independently, marketed at Buffy fans, and unlike the long-running DWM, expired before its fourth issue. (The reasons remain unclear, but this statement from publisher David Whittam suggests the cause may have been lack of funds). So the following critique comes with caveats. Miranda is an unfinished story, and can’t be judged in its entirety. Still, its relationship to Doctor Who raises some interesting questions from a feminist perspective.

The character Miranda was originally developed for Lance Parkin’s book Father Time (2001). I want to devote some attention to Father Time for contextual reasons. This well-written, unsettling, novel describes the Eighth Doctor adopting Miranda—a little girl with two hearts—and raising her on Earth. Although she is brought up to believe she is human, the Doctor knows that her birth father was a tyrannical Time Lord who was murdered in an uprising while she was still a baby. There are hints, never confirmed, that the tyrant may be a future regeneration of the Doctor. Until Miranda’s teens, she is unaware that she is both heiress to the universe and an assassination target for her father’s former slaves. In the mean time the Doctor does his utmost to keep her in material comfort, primarily by becoming a millionaire entrepreneur. He also articulates a depth of feeling for her that we rarely see expressed towards companions. Parkin describes the inspiration for the book as follows:

The Doctor can do all these fantastical things, but he’s not quite a full human being, he’s not quite emotionally literate. As I’ve said before, when I’m writing a Doctor Who book, I think of the most absurd non-Who like idea that I can, and try to get it to work. And the idea here was an image of the Doctor hugging a young girl, and saying ‘you’re my daughter, and I’ll always love you.’ It’s just not the sort of thing he does. So how did he get there? I was really worried about Miranda stealing the limelight, but in the end she’s a wonderful mirror for the Doctor – she really helps define him.

Quoted from a 2006 interview with the BBC

Parkin overstates the incongruity of the Doctor as paternal figure; after all, the First Doctor was introduced as a grandfather. However I agree that a Doctor who commits to “always loving” his daughter feels unfamiliar, for reasons nicely explored by Tansy in her posts on domesticity. The scenario suggests a permanent bond, or a personal tie placed before his public, itinerent, adventurer role. That’s quite a far cry from the mentor-like, but temporary relationships he often forms with young companions.

As Parkin claims, Miranda is a “mirror” for the Doctor; she possesses the same abilities, the same mannerisms… and the same class privileges. The domestic setting gives a new emphasis to the Doctor’s economic independence. His ability to cosset Miranda derives from material riches that are unavailable to other people in the book. Many of Miranda’s reported thoughts express a sense of superiority over her friends. This self-regard is focused on her extraterrestrial levels of intelligence and physical strength, but there is a clear class dimension to a young rich girl feeling innately superior. It is interesting to note that, unlike many companions, Miranda is not offered as a point of identification for readers–even though much of the story is related from her point of view. Instead she comes very close to functioning as a female equivalent to the Doctor. And while his love for her is moving, as a pair they regularly feel alienating and exclusionary. It is intriguing that the Doctor becomes harder to like as he ostensibly becomes more human by putting Miranda first.

If Miranda ceases to be a “mirror” for the Doctor, it is in the treatment of her sexuality. As a teenager she veers between feeling asexual and attempting to fit in with her peers by mimicking their sexual behaviour. Her asexuality is not maintained into adulthood. Rather, her indifference to sex is presented as a temporary adolescent confusion. Worryingly, her first genuine desire is for her would-be alien assassin, Ferran. The attraction partly derives from recognising him as an equal with powers comparable to her own (powers which her human boyfriend does not possess). That might be all well and good without the threat of murder. It troubles me that Miranda’s lust for a man who can match her becomes entwined with lust for a man who wants to kill her. By contrast, the Doctor pursues a quasi-romantic relationship with at least one human woman, seemingly at ease with the inequalities in his favour. There is little challenge to the idea that men should dominate women within the context of heterosexual relationships.

In the comic, also written by Parkin, much of the story’s peril derives from threats of (implicitly sexual) violence to Miranda, which include Ferran’s attempt to coerce their marriage. This is curious as the comic, in theory, has a female-friendly goal. Unlike Father Time, where Miranda is included to illuminate our understanding of the Doctor, the comic makes Miranda the protagonist and doesn’t refer to the Doctor at all. Parkin stated in 2002 that the strip aimed to provide “stories with aliens and robots and fast-paced action, but with a strong female central character” .

Yet the comic’s artwork, combined with certain narrative choices, make Miranda seem much more vulnerable here than in Father Time. She enters the story as a newcomer to space, ignorant of her ancestry; this tried and tested trope for getting readers up to speed with an alien world removes many of the privileges she possessed on Earth. Her physical strength no longer seems exceptional, and she knows less than everybody else. A more vulnerable Miranda would be fine, but isn’t really explored in terms of her feelings or reactions—a feature I’m willing to give a pass because we only have three issues to assess here. We can’t know how her character would have developed.

Miranda’s visual presentation is more problematic. All three issues of the comic are attractively drawn with dynamic panel layouts, but Miranda’s posture sometimes borders on the Escher-like contortions that have become so familiar to comics readers over the past decade. More generally, she’s drawn for the implied male reader’s titillation. In issue two, for instance, Ferran attempts to spy on her in the bath, resulting in illustrations like these (click to enlarge the picture):

Miranda rises from a bath. She is naked and on all fours. In the next panel she dries herself with a towel.

Miranda in the bath.

Her dialogue regularly opens an ironic gap between her thoughts and the image, but that just strikes me as an attempt to have your cake and eat it. See, for instance, her comments on an attractive male acquaintance, while the focus of the panel is clearly on her own body:

Miranda is drawn from behind, so that her rear is the focus of the image. She is saying to a friend, "Oh right...Um...Someone should watch his bum...er... his back. I'll go."

Miranda viewed from behind.

So to come back to the question I asked at the start of this post: how might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? On the basis of Miranda, the likelihood of being sexually objectified is a lot greater. How depressing. The comic has so much potential that isn’t realised, partly because of its untimely end. I can heartily recommend Father Time, though.

“Where is the Beauteous Majesty of Gallifrey?” Ophelia played by Martha Jones


Martha Jones is the lost companion, the forgotten companion, the rebound girl after Rose broke our Doctor’s heart before he found a friend.

She sets her demanding life aside to be what the Doctor needs because she loves him.  Meanwhile she tries to be the dutiful daughter to a family in crisis. She strives to save her sister, her brother, her parents…the world.

She does all this and more for love of the Doctor and gets nothing in return but grief and a fractured life.

She is Ophelia.

Ophelia strikes a powerful image in the feminist imagination.  In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Ophelia tries to be an obedient daughter to her over-bearing father, a loyal sister to her protective brother, an affectionate sweetheart to her mad Prince and a dutiful courtier to her scheming King.  Her world is dominated by the men she tries hard to please—to be what they need her to be with little thought for what she wants or who she is.  The result of her adherence to everything patriarchy tells her to be is abandonment by her dear brother, betrayal of her regal lover who rejects her then murders her beloved father, and ultimately madness and suicide at the bottom of pretty river after singing some sweet folk songs.

It ain’t called a tragedy for naught, folks.

More than any of Shakespeare’s heroines, feminists are fascinated by Ophelia.  They write scholarly articles examining her, paint and photograph her, dedicate songs and poetry to her.  The source of this obsession is what Ophelia represents.  She is a young woman without agency, surrounded by men and defined by her connections to them.  She suffers horribly at the hands of these men in her life: abandoned, rejected, used, abused and humiliated.  Ophelia is a feminist’s cautionary tale with a clear moral: if you let men dictate the circumstances of your life it will eventually drive you mad.

What does all this have to do with our Miss Jones?  Perhaps it was learning that Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actress who played Martha’s sister, portrayed Ophelia on Broadway opposite Jude Law a few years ago that started the connection in my head between Martha and Ophelia.  Perhaps this harmonised with seeing David Tennant play the title role himself.  Perhaps it is this week’s celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday and my decision to fill Dr Her’s Martha void that linked the two concepts.  And of course The Shakespeare Code episode—one of my favourites.  But these are superficial connections between the two women.  The comparisons between Martha and Ophelia run deeper and strike at the heart of what has made this five-hundred-year old character an enduring feminist icon.

When we first meet Martha in Smith and Jones, she cheerfully plays mediator between her battling family members.  It is a role she keeps up throughout her season as the Doctor’s companion.  Just as Rose did, Martha often finds herself placed between her new loyalties to the Doctor and her life-long loyalties to her family.  In The Lazarus Experiment, the Doctor finally meets the Joneses.

The Doctor: Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Jones. I’ve heard a lot about you.
Francine Jones: Have you. What have you heard, then?
The Doctor: Oh, y’know, that you’re Martha’s mother, and… Uhm… no, actually, that’s about it. We haven’t had much time to chat. You know, been… busy.
Francine Jones: Busy? Doing what, exactly?
The Doctor: Oh, y’know… stuff

Then later….

The Doctor: [sees Martha’s mother walking towards them; smiles] Ah, Mrs. Jones; we never finished our chat.
Francine Jones: [without preamble she slaps the Doctor round the face]
Francine Jones: Keep away from my daughter!
Martha Jones: Mum, what are you doing?
The Doctor: [rubbing his jaw] Always the mothers! Every time!

In the end, Mrs Jones gives her daughter a more direct warning about the Doctor.

Francine Jones: [on the phone] Martha, it’s your mother. Please, phone me back, I’m begging you! I know who this Doctor really is! I know he’s dangerous! You’re going to get yourself killed! Please trust me! This information comes from Harold Saxon himself. You’re not safe!

Ophelia faces similar difficulty juggling her family with her feelings for the man she loves.  In her first scene of Hamlet, her brother Laertes is about to leave for France to become a soldier.  He demands that she write him often to assure him all is well, then lectures about her relationship with the young Prince of Denmark:

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.

Her father Polonius echoes these warnings, finally forcing Ophelia to swear she will not see Hamlet any longer.  “These blazes, daughter,” says Polonius, “Giving more light than heat extinct in both, you must not take for fire.”  What an eloquent way of expressing life with a Time Lord: all flash and fireworks but over far too soon.  What a prophetic way of expressing Martha’s feelings as she takes the blaze of her admiration for fire, though the Doctor gives her more light than heat.

Despite the opposition of her family Martha, like Ophelia, does her best to do right by all the people in her life.  Also like Ophelia, the effort of meeting these demands tears her apart.  Nowhere is this more evident than in The Last of the Time Lords, but we see her strain earlier in the Human Nature/Family of Blood episodes.

The men in Ophelia’s life abandon her: Laertes leaves for France, Hamlet leaves for England and Polonius leaves for the after-life.  Ophelia never realises her lover mistakenly murdered her father—in fact, no one shares any facts about her father’s death with her.  In Shakespeare’s tragedy this leads to Ophelia’s break with sanity and eventual suicide.

Like Hamlet, the Doctor escapes from his life in order to hide from an enemy.  In Hamlet’s case it is a scheming family member, in the Doctor’s it is the scheming Family of Blood.  Fortunately our Miss Jones is made of stronger stuff than Ophelia.  When she is abandoned in 1913 with a Doctor who is literally out of his mind she makes a new life for herself rather than fall to pieces or into a river.  She does all that is asked of her: keeps the Tardis safely secreted, stays close to the humaned Gallifreyan and maintains a cover identity until the time is right to give John Smith his watch back.  But it is not an easy mission for her.  She endures humiliation from the pampered school boys, looks on helplessly as John Smith falls in love with a human that isn’t her and finally takes on the Family of Blood single-handedly.

 

Martha and Ophelia even share a grisly end: drowning.  For Ophelia it is an intentional end to her pain—suicide by the riverside.  In the episode The Sontaran Stratagem, Martha experiences her own drowned moment.  For her it is not an end but a transformation—and not of her own making.  The imagery of her clone rising from the thick liquid in the basement of Unit is a powerful water image, one which conjures up connections with Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

 

MARTHA

He is everything, he is just everything to me and he doesn’t even look at me but I don’t care because I love him to bits.

 

OPHELIA

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
…The observed of all observers…
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

These quotes illustrate another profound comparison between Ophelia and Martha: unrequited love.  There are many interpretations of Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia, but his rejection of her affection in clear in the text:

HAMLET

If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs
marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough
what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,
and quickly too. Farewell.

Though the Doctor never makes his rejection of Martha quite this brutally clear, he does spurn her advances.  However, like Hamlet the Doctor does not fully spurn Martha.  He does not send her away.  He keeps her as his companion.  Similarly, in the next scene Hamlet and Ophelia share together he lays his head in her lap before the entire court and propositions her.  At her funeral Hamlet declares true love for Ophelia—so what are we to believe?  What is Ophelia to believe? What should Martha believe?

Like Ophelia, Martha is a cautionary tale for companions.  The Doctor does not love—not the way human women want him to.  It is only as a human (or a Time Lord-Human Metacrisis) that the Doctor is capable of romance.  Anyone who forgets this is ultimately doomed to heartbreak, pain and the end of life as they know it.  And though Martha bears the most striking similarities to Ophelia, the Beauteous Majesty of Gallifrey leaves a trail of drowned Ophelias in his wake: Rose abandoned to an alternative universe (though her love story turns out rather well in the end); Donna stripped of her consciousness, of woman she became on the Tardis; Astrid Peth denied the life she might have had on the Tardis; Sarah Jane dumped unceremoniously in Bournemouth…sorry Aberdeen; and so many,  many others fall by the wayside in the Time Lord Hamlet’s seemingly endless quest to escape the ghosts of his past.

The love in vain, they strive to be who he needs them to be, he abandons them, they go mad, they drown…  Time and Space are littered with his Ophelias.  If only Hamlet’s lady had access to a sonic screw driver…how different her life might have been.

Chicks Dig Being Interviewed: Lynne M Thomas and Deborah Stanish

Chicks Dig Time Lords (edited by Lynne & Tara O’Shea) was released from Mad Norwegian Press in 2009 and its focus on female fans of Doctor Who and their experiences in personal essays seemed to be exactly what fandom was looking for. The book exploded several myths about the ‘lack’ of women in Classic Who fandom, and gave a celebratory voice to women in the new fandom too.

The success of Chicks Dig Time Lords (culminating in a Hugo for Best Related Work) led to follow up projects including Whedonistas (edited by Lynne M Thomas & Deborah Stanish), this week’s new release Chicks Dig Comics (edited by Lynne M Thomas and Sigrid Ellis) and the to-be-released-later-this-year Chicks Unravel Time (edited by Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles) which brings the series back full circle to the Doctor Who universe. As a reader, I love the fact that this series of books is treating women’s experiences with fandom seriously, and that I get to read some great essays with so many different female bylines at once.

Thanks to Lynne and Deb for agreeing to be interviewed by Tansy about their work for Doctor Her!

DOCTOR HER: Let’s start with Chicks Dig Time Lords. How did you get involved with the project originally?

LYNNE: Well, it all began in 2007 when Tara O’Shea had the publisher (Lars Pearson) and his wife (Christa Dickson) locked in her apartment…erm, I mean, when Lars and Christa stayed with her for a weekend as they attended an event in Chicago. It also began with a tshirt that Tara designed to wear to the Gallifrey One 2007 convention, which sported the words “Chicks Dig Time Lords” that many of us fangirls (myself included) coveted.

I should note that Tara attended college with my husband Michael, and all of us (Tara, Michael and I, and Lars and Christa) were friends through Doctor Who fandom. Christa and Tara had been doing Fangirl-Squee! and slash-type panels for years, and I soon joined in. Lars had been running Mad Norwegian Press for quite some time, putting out guidebooks that did things like put all of Doctor Who continuity in order, or reviewed all of the Doctor Who books published while the show was off the air.

During that fateful weekend, Tara pitched the anthology to Mad Norwegian Press, with the title based on the tshirt. The pitch was accepted, work began, and then about 6 months later some family issues came up for Tara that were making it difficult to complete the book herself on the original timeline. I was brought in to lend a hand as co-editor, based upon my experience as an academic writer and editor. I curate the literary papers of SF/F authors as part of my day job, so I brought a lot of additional contacts to the table.

Tara and I sat down and figured out how to move forward from that point together.

Mad Norwegian had never published an essay anthology before. We had never edited one. So there was a lot of figuring out how to do things in that first year, both before I came onto the project, and after I joined it.

DOCTOR HER: So what are the most important lessons about editing that you took away from that first book?

LYNNE: Can I say “everything”?

It was a huge learning curve for all of us.

Our associate editor, my husband Michael, ended up doing a lot of the legwork researching how to put an anthology together.

We learned how to contact writers. We learned to use our current network, but not to be afraid to approach people cold. For instance, Elizabeth Bear, Catherynne Valente and Seanan McGuire were friends, and thus easy to approach for the book. On the other hand, we emailed Carole Barrowman cold through her website.

Another lesson, I think, was in organization. Spreadsheets help you to know where you’re at (who has turned in what, whether it’s been edited, etc.). Which we figured out in time for the second book, Whedonistas, that I did with Deb Stanish. The spreadsheet for Chicks Dig Time Lords was in Michael’s brain and our email accounts. Not as easy as Deb’s spreadsheet.

We also learned how to work with writers, publishers, etc. We had to develop a vocabulary to describe what we were looking for, and to explain what we wanted as we worked with them. Most importantly, knowing the difference between when to leave something alone, and when to assist a writer in developing something further. That took practice.

Fortunately, we had phenomenal luck with the people we worked with. They were talented, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us.

DOCTOR HER: You both wrote essays for the first book – how did you choose your topic? Or did it choose you?

LYNNE: Tara gave me my topic, really. She had a list of potential topics that essayists might use, and one of them was about marrying into fandom. Which is what I did, so I grabbed that topic with both hands. It evolved from there, of course, into being about found family and community, but that was where it started.

DEB: My topic actually grew out of a presentation I gave at a local con on fandom hierarchies. As I was thinking about what I could bring to the Chicks Dig Time Lords table I decided that, in addition to the idea of hierarchies, I really wanted to explore my experiences not only as a new fan, but also as a new female fan in what had long been presented as a “boys club”. My experiences writing for the Doctor Who Information Network fanzine “Enlightenment” was the perfect vehicle to tie all of this together. Plus, who can resist a good anecdote about face-painters and the very mainstream acceptance of sports fandom?

DOCTOR HER: What kind of support did the book get from Doctor Who fandom? Was there any resistance to the idea of a book about “Doctor Who and girls”?

LYNNE: Well, the response really depends upon where you are. Here in the US, we were welcomed with open arms, and, to put it mildly, it has been overwhelming. We won a Hugo. So I think it’s fair to say that we have gotten a ton of support in the US.

In the UK, however, it’s been a bit quieter–we didn’t even make the Doctor Who Magazine top 5 nonfiction book list in their 2010 annual poll, for instance, despite a really lovely review of the book from Andrew Pixley in DWM. We’ve not really experienced actual resistance; it’s been more a matter of polite disinterest in most cases.

Internationally outside of the UK, we have seen pockets of fans here and there being excited, but since all of our events have been in the US, we really haven’t have had much opportunity to squee in person.

DOCTOR HER: So let’s talk about THE FREAKING HUGO. What was it like to win Best Related Work on the night? Has it changed the way the book is perceived?

LYNNE: Frankly? I’m still kinda in shock, nearly a year later. I was speechless for most of the night, which, if you know me, does not happen very often.

We made history. This is the first time in the history of the Hugos that a nonfiction book about fictional media of any kind won, and only the seventh time that a nonfiction book about media was even nominated. There aren’t terribly many female editors who have won Hugos, either. Winning the Hugo has also opened up some new opportunities for me, such as taking over the helm of Apex Magazine as Editor-in-Chief, guesting on podcasts, or doing occasional Doctor Who programming at local public libraries.

[interviewer note: since completing the interview, Lynne’s podcast the SF Squeecast received a Hugo Nomination for this year’s new Best Fancast category]

I am, and remain, very, very grateful, and humbled. I can’t thank our publisher, Mad Norwegian, my co-editor, Tara O’Shea, and all of our contributors enough. I’m very proud of our book, and I’m thrilled that these fandom communities have embraced it to this level, given that it really is a love letter to the fandom experience that happens to be about Doctor Who in particular.

Has winning the Hugo changed how the book is perceived? I doubt it. But I’m viewing the perceptions of the book from inside the SF/F and Doctor Who fandom communities, who knew about it already. :-) It has garnered a certain amount of additional attention outside of those communities, of course; people who might never have come across the book have now heard of it. Which is never a bad thing. :-)

DOCTOR HER: Next came the follow up book Whedonistas, the one that you worked on together as an editorial team. What challenges did writing about the Whedonverse bring, compared to Doctor Who?

LYNNE: I think one of the biggest challenges was that as the book was being put together, there weren’t any Joss Whedon shows currently running. So it was much more retrospective than Chicks Dig Time Lords in that sense.

DEB: I agree. There is a certain vibrancy and cohesiveness associated with a “live” fandom. At the time we commissioned Whedonistas the Buffy comics were really the only Whedon property in current production so we found the vast majority of essays were more a contemplative look at the impact Whedon’s work had on their personal and creative lives. There was a lot of nostalgia and it was beautiful.

DOCTOR HER: Why do you think there’s so much crossover between Whedon fans and Doctor Who fans – especially women?

DEB: My personal introduction to Doctor Who was through my Whedon friends. In 2005 Whedon fandom was buzzing with talk of this “new show” and I had friends who insisted that I needed to watch this amazing thing so, anecdotally, I’m going to say there is a fair amount of crossover. I think this is particularly true with New Who. Whedon fans tend to gravitate toward smart, thoughtful television with complicated interpersonal relationships so New Who is pretty much tailor made for that audience. And now that Whedon alum Jane Espenson has been brought into the Doctor Who family, via Torchwood, the crossover is officially canon!

DOCTOR HER: And now Chicks Dig Comics too, which was officially released this week! Lynne, was this topic an obvious next step for the series? What excites you most about this book – and what’s in it for Doctor Who fans who loved Chicks Dig Time Lords?

LYNNE: I think that it was a fairly obvious next step for the series, particularly so once you take into account some of the controversy about the lack of women writers and artists initially announced for the DC Comics “New 52” relaunch. It was one of many sequel books pitched by Tara when she pitched Chicks Dig Time Lords, but then she moved on from Mad Norwegian to other projects. So Chicks Dig Comics moved forward with her blessing, with myself and Sigrid Ellis as the editors. Sigrid has been a comics fan her entire life, and has been actively blogging about comics at Fantastic Fangirls for several years. She’s also an air traffic controller in her day job, which means that she’s organized and decisive, both of which made her an excellent editorial partner.

The format of Chicks Dig Comics is roughly the same as Chicks Dig Time Lords: a diverse group of comics professionals, SF/F writers, and fans, all talking about the comics that made them squee. What excites me the most is the contributors: we really got a bunch of stellar contributors: Gail Simone, Marjorie M. Liu, Greg Rucka, Seanan McGuire, Louise Simonson, Amanda Conner, Terry Moore, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Delia Sherman, Jill Pantozzi. Mark Waid wrote us a fantastic introduction.

For Doctor Who fans who loved Chicks Dig Time Lords (who don’t happen to also be comics fans), it’s more essays by smart women talking about something they love deeply. I suspect, though, that there’s a fair amount of crossover for female geeks who love Doctor Who and comics. :-)

DOCTOR HER: Deb, what can you tell us about Chicks Unravel Time? Is it a direct sequel to Chicks Dig Time Lords, or doing something different?

DEB: Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who is more a sister anthology to Chicks Dig Time Lords than a direct sequel. The concept was born out of my own experience in being asked to write an essay on Season Eight for Enlightenment. My editor, Graeme Burke, couched the request with a rueful “you’ll have to deal with a lot of Jo Grant”. The prevailing wisdom being that she was a ditzy screamer in a short skirt. I, however, adored Jo. I found her to be a bit sly and subversive while deftly playing the early 1970’s hand she was dealt. She may not have had Liz Shaw’s credentials but she held her own with charm.

In Classic Who there are a lot of absolutes, the sacred cows of fandom: Jo Grant is a ditz, The Fourth Doctor was the best Doctor, The Caves of Andronzani was one of the best episodes ever, etc. I wondered how many of those sacred cows would stand up to a fresh perspective, particularly a very diverse, female perspective. So, with Chicks Unravel Time, we asked 35 women to each take on a season of Doctor Who, including the TV Movie and The Specials. We have diverse group of contributors, ranging in age from their early 20’s to 60’s, from all over the world who bring their unique viewpoints to what has been, traditionally, a very male dominated field. Besides the contributor base, the anthology also differs from traditional review/critique volumes in that it is a collection of smart, witty essays that look at each season as a whole rather than story-by-story reviews.

DOCTOR HER: As this interview is for a feminist Doctor Who blog I’d like to finish with two vital questions: who is your favourite female Doctor Who character of all time, and who would you cast as the first female Doctor if you ruled the BBC?

LYNNE: I really hate to play favorites, because there are so many female characters on Doctor Who that I adore, but if I am forced to choose, my favorite female Doctor Who character of all time is, and remains, Dorothy “Ace” McShane, companion to the 7th Doctor. My love for Ace is true.

If I was in charge of the BBC and could cast the first female Doctor (knowing that whomever it was would say yes), I’d ask Kate Winslet. Because I love her work and I think she’d make a splendid Doctor.

DEB: My answer to this question changes on almost a weekly basis! I think your first companion, like your first Doctor, will always hold a special place in your affections so I have to say that Rose Tyler will always be the companion of my heart. However, I am a huge fan of the Big Finish Audios and love their take on the companion story, often going in directions the series can’t, or won’t, go. Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller absolutely blew me away during her run with the Eighth Doctor and she’s currently at the top of my Companion Hall of Fame.

As for the first female Doctor – Helena Bonham Carter, hands down. She is absolutely bonkers, in the very best way, and would be absolutely delicious in the role.

Thanks, Lynne M Thomas and Deborah Stanish for being the first interview subjects on Doctor Her! We look forward to hearing about more of your projects in the future.

You can find out more about these books at the Mad Norwegian Press website. You can also find Lynne M Thomas at her blog, her podcast The SF Squeecast, and as the fiction editor at Apex Magazine. She is on Twitter as @lynnemthomas. You can find Deborah Stanish at her blog, and on Twitter as @debstanish.

Companions in Comics: The Coming Out of Izzy Sinclair

The Eighth Doctor’s arrival kickstarts an exciting period in Doctor Who Magazine. Old patterns are disrupted. This Doctor is fallible in ways that would have been unthinkable during the comic’s early days. We get numerous female companions with proper character arcs. And we begin to see slightly more space given to the characters’ sexuality. No doubt there’s a post to be written about the Doctor’s transition, in this incarnation, from asexual alien to half-human, heterosexual romantic. But for now, I want to focus on Izzy Sinclair—the Doctor’s companion from 1996 to 2003.

Izzy has geekish interests. She enters the story as a science-fiction-obsessed teenager from Hampshire, in England. After helping the Doctor fight off the Celestial Toymaker she eagerly accepts an invitation to join him in the TARDIS. Her presence makes the stories more knowing and intertextual: her speech is smattered with allusions to Star Trek, the X-Files, Iain Banks and Lovecraft. The pop culture references haven’t all dated well but serve a purpose for her character. Namely that, because she brings her own expectations of space and time travel, she is not a passive sounding board for the Doctor’s exposition. (This was definitely a problem with earlier female companions—I’m looking at you, Sharon).

However, Izzy hints that her SF love only partially accounts for running away with the Doctor. She is also trying to escape a range of identity issues which can no longer be ignored in her home life. These include her resentment at discovering she was adopted as a baby. Less explicitly, her closeness to a fellow TARDIS companion, Fey Truscott-Sade, demonstrates an unspoken attraction to women. Although Izzy intends to return to her family eventually, her plans are thwarted when, against her will, she swaps bodies with a genetically modified alien named Destrii. Izzy must adapt to living in a part human, part fish body, and is certain that her changed appearance will attract fear and hostility on Earth. (To be cynical for a moment, her figure still complies closely with the norm for comic book women. In fact her new swimming prowess grants lots of opportunities for looking at her breasts).

Gradually she comes to terms with her changed form. She continues to believe she will be rejected on Earth, and accepts she will not return home. It takes several stories, across a period of months, for her to reach this acceptance. Nevertheless Destrii turns up again and Izzy is happy to return to her original physical self. Restored to her own body, Izzy acknowledges her attraction to Fey by kissing her. A few panels later, she tells the Doctor she is ready to go home. He drops her off, hugs her goodbye, and she is reunited with her mother.

Izzy and Fay are kissing.

Picture of Izzy and Fay from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

As a denouement to seven years in the TARDIS these final scenes are poignant. Izzy, unlike many of the eighties’ comic companions, gets a satisfying exit that resonates with her character development. However, there are a few problematic aspects to highlight in her storyline.

Although Fay and Izzy’s relationship has a sexual subtext long before they kiss, the allusions are veiled. Whisking Izzy home as soon as her orientation is acknowledged brings her into line with a wider cultural pattern, in which lesbian, gay and bisexual characters tend to be limited to coming out stories.

Additionally, Izzy’s bodily transformations are a problematic metaphor for the numerous ways in which she feels “different.” By endowing her with an alien form, the body swap literalises her sense of feeling alien in her family as an adopted daughter, and in society as a woman who is attracted to women. (There is also a brief attempt, in the 2001 story The Way of All Flesh, to draw parallels between her transformation and acquired disability.) What then are we to make of her regaining her old body? Anticipating hostility on Earth because of an alien appearance is a realistic fear; but it is solved in the story by simply swapping back again. Obviously this is a troubling “solution” when alien embodiment is positioned as a symbol for being gay or disabled.

This picture shows Izzy with an alien body. Her face resembles a fish and her torso is humanoid. She wears a swimming costume that accentuates her cleavage.

Picture of Izzy in Destrii's body, from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

My suspicion is that nervousness about presenting openly LGBT characters prompted this use of alien embodiment as a metaphor. Some of the artwork also panders to readers who might feel threatened by attempts to diversify Doctor Who’s range of characters. For instance, the body swap not only coincides with Izzy’s most intense attempts to accept herself, but with a sexualisation of her appearance, as though to assuage an implied heterosexual, male reader who might otherwise feel disturbed he has no place in the story. He gets to ogle her, and accordingly she is less threatening.

Before her transformation, Izzy already complies fairly closely with conventional beauty standards—she is white, slim, and youthful. Still, the way she is drawn doesn’t objectify her. Her clothing is recognisably high street garb, she seems to dress for practicality, and her posture is naturalistic. After her transformation, you see a lot more flesh, and not in a particularly sex positive way; she frequently becomes an object for looking at. (It doesn’t help that Destrii isn’t presented in a sex positive way either: she is more forthright about her desires than Izzy, but she is also presented as manipulative and emotionally damaged. Her character development, which is genuinely compelling, sometimes strays towards pathologising her sexual behaviour).

So much for my misgivings about the way Izzy’s sexuality is handled. This isn’t to minimise the importance of showing a same sex kiss in the TARDIS. I’m sure, too, that Izzy’s success as a companion—because she is a great companion—made introducing openly LGBT characters more feasible for the revived television programme.

The Seven Plots and Doctor Who: Part 1 – Overcoming the Monster

overcomingthemonster

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker explains that, if you boil down every fictional story we tell, there’s actually only seven stories. The characters, setting, and details might change, but (if Booker is right) this means we can fit everything into seven very large buckets.

Recently, Ritch pointed out that Russell T Davies supposedly once told Moffat that we all write the same story over and over again. If we take Booker’s hypothesis of the seven plots and couple it with Doctor Who could we classify each story based on this literary theory?

Since the plots are quite in-depth, I’m going to try to dissect them using episodes of NuWho (sorry, I am not as familiar with the classic episodes yet to really delve into them, I’m working on it).

First plot: Overcoming the Monster
It’s no accident this is one of the first plots in the list. After all it’s the plot of the oldest Anglo-Saxon story we have, “Beowulf.” Overcoming the monster seems ideally suited for Doctor Who which deals with some sort of monster in almost every episode. In this plot the hero must learn of an evil threatening the land and overcome it. We can see this plot played out in episodes like, “The Idiot’s Lantern” when the Doctor arrives Muswell Hill, London on the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and discovers that something odd is happening. He uncovers the monster, a being called the Wire, who is using the highly televised event to soul suck people through their televisions. One of the more recent episodes that dealt with this plot is “The God Complex.” Vital to the Overcoming the Monster plot line is the steps that the hero usually takes to the conclusion.

The Anticipation Stage
The monster/danger makes itself known, but from a distance. Usually the reader/audience doesn’t see the monster right away, but the fear is very real. The monster must be the stuff of nightmares, something not entirely human. In this case the beast turns out to be a Minotaur-looking alien. While the monster in this plot may be different in appearance, they must have some kind of beastly quality that makes them the evil. If it’s a humanoid character than they must be malformed (or really big like the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk). If it’s an animal, like in “The God Complex,” then it must be cunning or capable of something that makes it partly human. Usually the monster is the representation of the darker side of humanity (in this case, it seems, the darker side of faith and possibly instinct, as he tells the Doctor later all that’s left is instinct).

We see the monster from a distance when the episode opens. We never catch a full view of it, always quick closeups (mostly the beast’s eye, which is significant). In this first case it’s Lucy, a police woman, who narrates the end of her life without much exposition, leaving the audience perplexed. As Lucy scribbles notes down in her pad we see more closeups of the beast. The beast’s animal noise growls and breathing (which aren’t entirely natural sounding) and heavy footsteps tell us it’s fierce and ferocious. Though there’s something more in the reaction the victims have which gives us our supernatural twist. A scream signifies poor Lucy’s demise.

The monster in the Overcoming the Monster story takes on three basic forms:

  • The Predator – Stalking victims (like in this story).
  • The Holdfast – the beast that guards a treasure or princess (wary of strangers, and suspicious). This beast is often sleeping when the hero comes up to claim the treasure.
  • The Avenger – the beast that’s awakened once the treasure/princess has been taken and hunts down the person(s) who have taken it.
Obviously, the monster can be all three of these forms in one story, but “In the God Complex” there’s no treasure or princess to rescue.

Hero’s Call to Action
The Doctor, Rory and Amy Look down the staircase in The God Complex

Once the story has established that the monster poses a great threat (in this case with Lucy’s death) the hero must receive his “call to action.” As with many of the Doctor’s adventures this call to action happens because the TARDIS has landed somewhere other than where the Doctor was planning on going. The Doctor was going to take Amy and Rory to Ravan-Skala, but instead is dropped off in a replica 1980s hotel. “Something must have yanked us off course,” The Doctor says dismissively.

When the Doctor, Amy and Rory are set upon by four frightened hotel guests, he receives his call to action. The exposition goes quickly with the Doctor asking questions of the four guests. The hero has a simple solution, The TARDIS, but discovers quickly his simple solution is gone. He then sums up their situation:

“Okay, this is bad. For the moment I don’t know how bad, but it’s certainly three buses, a long walk and a taxi from good.”

Once the hero receives his call of action he has choices (or does he). He can accept the call or try and run away from it, in the Doctor’s case he’s rarely run from a fight, so he starts right away to figure out the problem. He questions Joe, whose “tied up at the moment” because he’s very close to the same stage we saw Lucy at (acceptance that the Beast will kill him). This propels the story into the next stage.

The Dream Stage
The creepy dummies from The God Complex
In this stage the hero sets off after the monster (or the monster comes to him), but the monster is still at a comfortable distance. Everything seems to be going okay. In this case, the monster’s presence is very far away. Joe’s creepy recitation of a nursery rhyme, the awful elevator music resumes playing, and a low growl reminds us the danger is real, but there’s still a lot of humor like the PE teacher who tells the Doctor he’s doing PE “in his pants” (pants means underwear American folks, not anything dirty… well, wait…) and Rory telling Howie that his conspiracy theory is “amazing” because he’s found a theory more insane than what’s actually happening.

We’re clued in that the threat is far away in several places in this stage. Even when Howie finds his door (filled with teenage girls making fun of his stutter), Howie dismisses it as a “messed up CIA stuff.” When The Doctor and Amy finally hear the monster growling (again from a distance), Amy says: “it’s not real, yeah?” The Doctor says it’s not, but that they should run away and hide anyways. Rory’s spotting the exit door also confirms this comfortable distance (though his entire storyline is a bit different than the rest of the characters).

Of course, during this stage every one of the newly introduced characters (Joe, Howie, Rita and Gibbis) find their doors, but not Amy, Rory and the Doctor [though, there’s a slight mislead with the Weeping Angels room, as we’re meant to think it’s Amy’s room at first]. The monster comes after Joe, but the rest of the characters are safely behind doors. We catch more glimpses of the monster as the Doctor looks through the peep hole. In this case, the scene mirrors the Doctor’s eye with the monster’s eye (indicating their relationship, now our hero and monster are tied). Joe’s inevitable death still is comfortable, because of the implied inevitability of it.

The comfortableness is continued as the characters are safe in the giant dinning room/kitchen. Rita hands out tea, which the Doctor finds surprising. She smiles and says:

“of course, I’m British, it’s how we cope with trauma, that and ‘tutting’.”

The danger is not immediate enough to keep them from enjoying the tea. This also allows for more exposition in the form of Lucy’s notepad, it echoes some of the information we received at the beginning of the episode, but it’s meaning is clearer. When Howie falls into the monster’s thrall the danger slowly creeps closer and closer. The Doctor decides to use Howie as bait to catch the monster because, at this stage, everything needs to appear to be working. We see more glimpses of the Monster (giant, impossible horns that scrape the ceiling, hooves, etc.). The confrontation between the Doctor and the monster is assured now, taking us to the next stage.

Frustration Stage
At this point, the hero has met the monster and the monster is impossible to beat. Defeat seems to be just a matter of time. During this time the hero may fall into the monster’s clutches or under his power/thrall. In the episode, once the monster is trapped, the Doctor tries desperately to understand it after it realizes that it is not the source of the nightmares or trapping the people in this giant maze. He can’t gather all of the words (a callback to the idea that the TARDIS can’t translate very old languages, and the monster is so old that his name is lost) and asks how to defeat the monster. The monster doesn’t answer.

Interestingly, the Doctor and the monster have a conversation in a room full of water and mirrors. Reflective surfaces such as water and mirrors have a huge significance in most religions (not surprisingly because religion/faith being a theme in this episode). Mirrors steal your soul, mirrors reflect your true self, mirrors are gateways to other worlds, and so much more. The Doctor is inches away from the monster, but the two are separated by falling water. Again, the scene invokes the relationship the hero and the monster have… are the Doctor and the monster opposites? Or is there something more under the surface? could it be that the monster the Doctor’s reflection?

The Monster and the Doctor looking at each other through water

There’s little time for the Doctor to truly grasp all of this because Howie’s convinced Gibbis to let him go and is heading up to the monster. The monster cracks most of the reflective surfaces, including Howie’s glasses and the trap has failed. To add to the frustration, Amy has now seen her door (the number being 7, the age she was when she met the Doctor).

Throughout the episode, from the first time meeting her, the Doctor has grown to admire Rita, who questions the Doctor’s calling (as the hero). He offers to take her away with him on the TARDIS, but (after the Doctor leaves) Rita utters the “praise him” line that seems to seal her fate. As with most frustration stages, the Doctor falls under the monster’s thrall, and opens his own door. Then he has to watch, helplessly as Rita goes to her death. True to her final wish, he does not watch her death. Her death causes him to smash things in (you guessed it) frustration. Finally, Gibbis points out the helplessness of their situation, after the Doctor has said he’ll figure out how to change it:

“You keep saying that but you never do. And while we wait, people keep dying and we’ll be next.”

Finally, the Doctor realizes that it’s not fear that’s killing them, it’s faith. The fear just caused them to fall back on their faith. The Doctor also realizes that he’s caused the deaths by asking people to dig into their faith, the things that make them strong. He’s fallen into the deepest frustration a hero can have. This leads us to the climax of the episode.

Nightmare Stage
The Doctor watches Rita go to her death

It’s time for the final battle between the monster and our hero. In this case though, the battle is not with the monster directly it’s with Amy and the Doctor. Much like Lucy’s haunting words, you never know what’s behind your door, but when you see it you realize it can be nothing else. Amy and the Doctor’s relationship has been leading up to this event. Amy, whose life has been so ruled by the Doctor’s presence in it, whose character is shaped by being “the girl who waited” has the strongest faith of the characters. Her faith in the Doctor.

For the final battle the Doctor must break Amy’s faith in him to save her. He admits that he knows what will happen to his companions, but takes them anyways because he needs to be adored. That it’s time that the Doctor and Amy see each other “for who we really are.” The long standing mythos of the Doctor as Peter Pan (as I pointed out in a previous post) is now broken. The Doctor has this realization earlier with Rita when he likens his offer of traveling through time and space as offering children a suitcase of candy:

I brought them here. They say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it. Offer someone all of time and space and they’ll take that too. Which is why you shouldn’t. Which is why grown-ups were invented.

Unlike Peter Pan, the Doctor realizes that Amy must grow up, that’s its better for her. He also acknowledges that (despite his age) he is not a grown up. Instead of forcing her to remain child-like (like Peter Pan tries to do with Wendy) the Doctor becomes the person who makes her grow up.

The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
The Doctor comforts the beast before he dies

For this stage the monster’s power must be broken, the people liberated, and the hero rewarded. In the episode, the monster’s power is broken the Doctor “sacrifices” Amy’s faith in him to save the monster from the torment of his capture. The word choice is very deliberate with the theme of faith. We fully see the parallel between the Monster and the Doctor: both feed on faith, on the worship of those around them and now the Doctor has cut off the supply to both himself and the Monster.

The monster (which I should point out is related to the Nimon, a race who appeared earlier in the Classic Who episode “The Horns of Nimon”) dies, at first comforted by the Doctor and then he offers the Doctor a warning before dying (ancient beings must always offer the Doctor warnings as they die, we learned this from the Face of Boe). The Doctor translates what the creature is saying as he dies:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocents. Drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. Such a creature, death would be a gift.

The Doctor tells him to “accept it. And sleep well.” The Doctor pauses and then says the creature’s final words, “I wasn’t talking about myself.” Haunting the Doctor’s thoughts, indicating there’s more evil to come, and sealing the parallel between the two.

Usually, the hero at the end of the Overcoming the Monster story is rewarded. It can be some sort of treasure, or the ultimate other half (prince/princess), or a kingdom to rule over (or being the boss of one’s own company). Here’s where the story slightly turns, because it’s Amy and Rory who receive the treasure (Rory’s favorite car and a new house) not the Doctor.

Because of this one may think that this means there’s no treasure at all left for the Doctor, but as the episode ends, Rory runs out to the street and asks, “what happened? What is he doing?” Amy’s response comes as she looks up to the sky (again, religious symbolism), and says, “he’s saving us.” The final image of Amy is her at the window, looking up, indicating that she (once again) is full of faith in the Doctor. She once again is the girl who waited. The Doctor’s ultimate desire, the thing he sacrificed, has returned. Despite the solemness of the ending, it gives us the Doctor’s version of a happily ever after.

Amy watches out the window