My weekly TV column is up at Torontoist.
I’ve thought for a long while that any long-running series eventually stops being about anything other than itself. Each individual story might be about something; “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example, is about the absurdity of racial prejudice. But that’s not what ‘Star Trek’ is about. Other episodes of the series were about friendship, or about sexism, or about obsession…until eventually, all you could really say about the series was that it was about the Enterprise crew and the things that happened to them. Each episode was like a color transparency, laid over each other episode until all you could see was a character-shaped hole.
You could say the same thing about ‘Buffy’, about ‘Highlander’, about just about every long-running series…in the end, the changes forced on them by circumstance and the need to keep the show creatively fresh made them less about high school or the Gathering or the alien conspiracy or the fall of the Greek gods and more, eventually, about a person to whom things happen. A season might have an arc, an episode might have a point, but ‘Buffy’ is about a young woman named Buffy.
I’ve come to the conclusion, recently, that ‘Doctor Who’ is (as always, it seems, among science-ficton/fantasy series) an exception. ‘Doctor Who’ is about something, all the way through its fifty-year history, and it’s not the Doctor. In fact, the key to realizing what it’s about is to realize that the Doctor isn’t really what the series is about at all. It’s about the people around him. The Doctor is a catalyst, an agent of change, and the show ‘Doctor Who’ is about the way that people deal with him (and by extension, the monsters he fights and the strangeness of his universe) being thrust into their worldview.
Because everyone has a worldview, a collection of concepts and information that forms the underpinning to their mental existence. Things fall down, cars take you places, jobs pay you money, and the world works the way you’ve come to expect it to each day. We all form an opinion about the Way Things Are…and crucially, we all deal in different ways when that worldview is disrupted.
Some people become angry. Obama becoming President, for example, created a kind of hysterical rage in a certain type of person, because in their world black people did not become President. Obama wasn’t just a man who disagreed with them, he was a sign that their entire existence had come to an end, to be replaced by a strange new world where all their old certainties had dissolved. These people have to believe that he somehow cheated his way into the Oval Office, because they can’t accept the fundamental idea of his legitimacy.
Other people become elated by the change. The unexpected fills them with delight, tells them that there are still surprises left in a boring and predictable world. Seeing a paralyzed woman pick up a cup with a robot arm controlled entirely by her mind elicits a sort of giddiness, a sense that you’re taking a step into a bigger and stranger and more wonderful universe than you previously knew existed.
And many people, to quote the ‘Doctor Who’ story “The Face of Evil”, “rework the facts to fit their views.” Information that changes their worldview too much becomes false, even if the logic required to fit the lie into their head becomes strained to the point of absurdity. People are willing to imagine vast and shadowy conspiracies of government coups and secret shadow agencies if the alternative is accepting that a President can get his head blown clean off by a stranger with a rifle and a grudge.
This is what ‘Doctor Who’ is about. It’s about the ways that people deal with situations that challenge their worldviews. Each story establishes a world, whether it be 1960s London or an alien planet thousands of years in the future, and then it drops the Doctor–a tiny piece of impossibility–into that world. Just to see what happens. (This is one reason why the series can run for so long on such a premise…it’s inherently new-viewer friendly. Since you have to establish the world before you can change it, you’re constantly creating entry points for people who’ve never seen the show before.)
Sometimes people cope with the changes. The first two seasons of the series were about Ian and Barbara, two normal 60s schoolteachers, dealing with situation after situation that was entirely outside of their experience. Rose gleefully embraces the strangeness, Dodo freaks out and leaves the second she gets the chance, and Tegan treats it like a package tour until the point where it all gets to be too much for her.
Other people try to slot the Doctor into their worldview. The new show makes it explicit with the psychic paper–when the Doctor shows it to you, you see what you expect him to be reflected back at you–but even in the old series, the Doctor was always treated like what he was expected to be. Authoritarians saw him as a rebel, police slotted him in as a criminal, scientists expected him to be a kindred spirit. People have tried, desperately and endlessly, to make him fit. Only to find, to their frustration, that’s he’s exactly what he says he is, and nothing else.
The people who can’t accept that, in ‘Doctor Who’, tend to come to unpleasant ends. If you can’t accept that a Dalek or an Ice Warrior isn’t something familiar and acceptable, something you can fit into your worldview by negotiating with them or threatening them or ignoring them, they will probably kill you. The only chance you have to survive in ‘Doctor Who’ is to keep an open mind, to accept that the universe is bigger and stranger and more wonderful than you previously imagined, and to believe the facts when they’re right in front of your face, even if they’re not pleasant. And that’s a premise big enough to last fifty years and then some.
Energy-Puking Boy (and others): Community Alignment Chart?
I’m not going to do what somebody else already did perfectly well just for the sake of doing it with my particular chart design. You can quibble if Abed and the Dean should be switched or if Britta and Troy should be, but it’s reasonably accurate. (If you want to see an awful Community alignment chart that rips off my design, here you go.)
Unstoppable Gravy Express: So is that Brad Paisley / LL Cool J song racist or not?
Ta-Nehisi Coates answered that better than I ever could.
Rbx5: re there any Big Two/Image titles you are, in fact, following, and why?
A fair amount of Marvel, actually. Avengers, New Avengers, Uncanny Avengers, Wolverine and the X-Men, All New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. The current F4 stuff isn’t bad at all but it doesn’t really grab me, mostly because after the Jonathan Hickman run on that franchise it just sort of pales in comparison, and Hickman is the reason I’m reading his two Avengers books – he’s currently my “I will read any comic he writes” writer, much in the way that Grant Morrison was such ten years ago.
I’m not buying anything DC prints new; given their current treatment of creators (this is not to say that Marvel is great shakes, they aren’t, but DC these days seems determined to actively fuck creators over in every possible respect) I try to avoid giving them money. I bought a copy of The New Deadwardians used and it was really good, and I am glad DC didn’t get any of my money for it.
Image… I picked up Sex, which is Joe Casey’s book about a Batman analogue post-Bat-life sort of a thing. It was okay-to-decent but the lettering was so distracting I gave up on it after two issues. I’m reading Saga in trades (it is very good) and The Manhattan Projects because Hickman, and I tried out Prophet which fell into the “it’s good, but not my thing” category.
switchnode: How long do you expect/intend Al’Rashad to run? Are we a significant way into a fast, hard-hitting story about a particular flashpoint, or still in the setup phase of something much longer and more sprawling? On a related note, do you think of it more as a webcomic, or as a comic book that happens to be on the web?
It’s going to run eight “issues,” with issue eight planned to be oversized (e.g. more than 28 pages, less than a full ninth issue). Currently we’re midway through book six, so you do the math.
And it’s a comic book that happens to be on the web. The fact that people keep complaining about things which get revealed 1-2 pages later probably should have been a big tip-off there. Davinder and I wanted to do a comic, and I don’t actually like the episodic/strip format of many webcomics for the purpose of a larger narrative. So there you go.
Murc: Any chance of maps at any point for Al-Rashad?
They’re definitely in the queue, although they might end up being bonuses for the print edition.
I’m watching ‘Babylon 5′ for the first time this year. (What can I say, it’s not exactly something you do over a weekend.) It’s funny, because I remember all of my friends and most of my acquaintances absolutely rhapsodizing about the series when it was on, while I kind of didn’t get into it because nobody really started talking about how awesome it was until Season Three, and all of them talked about how you had to get into it from the beginning to really understand what was going on right now and this was a pre-DVD era so tracking down the episodes didn’t seem worth my time right that second.
But what a lot of them wound up saying was that Seasons 2-4 were great, but that Season 5 was a big letdown and that while there were great moments, ultimately JMS’ goal of doing a single five-year long story told in episodic form had to be considered a failure, due to the ways he had to unexpectedly truncate the story out of fear that they wouldn’t get a Season Five, then just as unexpectedly elongate the epilogue when it got greenlit after all. (And I’ve also been told it didn’t help that Claudia Christian didn’t come back for Season Five. But the Cult of Ivanova has faded over the years, from its fever pitch of 1996.) Now, I will issue the caveat before I speak further, that I am currently getting ready to watch “Z’ha’dum” later tonight, so I’m not even into Season Four yet let alone Season Five. But knowing what I do know about the series that’s coming and the series I’ve already seen (which is actually quite a bit, since it’s not exactly easy to avoid spoilers for a twenty-year-old TV series)…can you show me anyone who’s done this better? For that matter, can you show me anyone who’s done it nearly as well?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit, since the question first occurred to me, and nothing’s coming to mind. ‘Lost’ and ‘BSG’ both have a legion of fans who will be quick to tell you how badly the series finales fared as actual summations of the show as a whole, not to mention how clear it became at the halfway point that these guys didn’t have a plan for the endgame and were just winging it. ‘Heroes’? They didn’t even have a plan for Season Two, let alone a potential series conclusion. ”X-Files’ tried, but was hamstrung both by its showrunner’s terminal phobia of revealing any of the series’ secrets, and by the departure of most of the cast by the end. ‘Fringe’, by all accounts, had some great ideas but a confusing and inconsistent logic in explaining key plot points. ’Buffy’ and ‘Angel’, while good, never seemed to have a long-term plan…they were content to go it one year at a time, with some notions about down the road if needed. (Which is why Anya suddenly becomes a vengeance demon again…and then just as suddenly becomes human six episodes later, because those six episodes crucially fell over a season break.) ‘Stargate’ and its spin-offs, ‘Star Trek: DS9′, ‘Highlander’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Xena’, ‘Walking Dead’, ‘Fringe’, ‘Eureka’, ‘Warehouse 13′, ‘Doctor Who’…it’s not that these weren’t good series, but none of them even tried to do what ‘B5′ did. About the only series I can think of that’s consciously having a beginning/middle/end structure along these lines is ‘Game of Thrones’, and we can’t judge that until it’s over.
So, is it fair to say that the series that have tried to have long-term, overarching, series-long storyarcs have wound up illuminating just how tricky it is to pull that kind of thing off, and made ‘Babylon 5′ look all the more impressive by comparison? Or am I giving some of the shows above (or a show I forgot to mention) short shrift? Or am I going to be changing my tune once I see how Season Five plays out? Your thoughts below!
Yes, I’m posting about the new Doctor Who. Because if I do have a “thing” on this website, which I’m quite prepared to entertain arguments that I don’t, it’s that I’m the “Doctor Who guy”. And there’s a new half-season on, because the BBC is too cheap to fund more than about six episodes a year right now (I wouldn’t be so annoyed by this if the show wasn’t profitable as well as entertaining and popular and well-made–yes, it has a high production budget, but it makes it back and then some in merchandising.) And the first episode, ‘The Bells of St. John’s', aired last Saturday. So let’s chat about it after the cut.