Occasional poster Lee “Leeee” Wang sent me this and I thought it was worth a wider audience, so here you go.
Many of you Whovians have probably seen this Youtube (which is almost half a year old now) (and for you SYTYCD trainspotters, yes, that’s Paula van Oppen), but with the new season less than a week away, it’s as apt a time to revisit at least one of the themes that Craig Ferguson mentions, to wit:
It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance
over brute force and cynicism.“
On the surface, Craigy Fergy sounds like he’s spot on, because the Doctor saves the day in nearly every story by showing just how clever he is, the nerdy appeal of which should be obvious. Except, does the Doctor really represent the triumph of pure reason over brawn?
Looking for now at the revived series, it gets a little complicated, I think. On a couple of occasions, we’ve seen suggestions of the Doctor’s immense physical powers, either extant (the baroque imprisonments of the Family of Blood) or burgeoning (the powers that River Song alluded to in “Forest of the Dead,” such as snapping to open the doors of the TARDIS). (Oh, and let’s remember that the Third Doctor had his Venusian Aikido.) Of course, “Forest of the Dead” is written by Moffat, the current showrunner, so it’s fair to suspect that we may be seeing more amazing powers to go with Matt Smith’s gigantic chin, like oh I don’t know head-butt mind-melds? The upshot is that behind every adventure in which the Doctor flexes his cleverness is the implicit threat that if his brain proves not up to the task, then he’ll just trap you in “every mirror in existence.”
Sure, maybe he has these powers because he’s Gallifreyan (in which case it’s worth noting that he’s all-but-abandoned his native powers, a point I’d like to return to in a bit), but they’re still there, which compromises the purity of the brains-over-brawn triumphalism. All the same, this reading of the Doctor’s character still speaks to nerd fantasies, though ones more nuanced than “intellect over brute strength.” Instead, the fantasies are more akin to the secret desire within the hearts of all nerds to possess immense but hidden strength that will show our tormentors that our outward meekness is actually for their benefit. Not to be too autobiographical or anything.
To return briefly to the Doctor abandoning his Gallifreyan birthrights, it’s interesting to think about how he tracks with British culture. The First Doctor — an elderly patriarch with an air of unilateral authority disdainful of those he viewed as inherently inferior to himself — premiered as Empire was in stark decline and withdrawing from its role as a global hegemon. He gave way to incarnations (clownish, affable, eccentric) that were far less authoritarian as Britain’s came more to exert international influence less through geopolitical might than through culture (an admittedly US-centric way of viewing things). (Since my familiarity with the classic series is nowhere as deep as John Seavey’s, and also since I’m pretty much an pig-ignorant Yankee, commenters should feel free to fill in the blanks.)
(MGK EDITS TO ADD: I think Lee’s theory about the Doctor tracking to British culture is pretty spot on. Consider the second, third and fourth Doctors as being a response and eventually acceptance of the 60s/70s counterculture, with the fifth through seventh being the response to Thatcherian authoritarianism, and the ninth through eleventh as embrace of the basic nerdity of the premise as well as of technological salvationism. But that’s just spitballing. Somebody else can write the thesis.)