More Astro-Sugar For Your Space Tea?

Matthew is going to love the categorizing-gobbledegook in this one, I predict.

Let me compare it all to music, just briefly, in a bit of a rhyme:

“I remember when “Pop” was on one side of the record store, and “Rock” on the other. And I remember — how I remember! — the First Pop War. Its flags, its body-count, its head-wounds in basements. Its tattered eyeliner. Its pointy-toed feet.

And I remember the days of “Alternative”‘s birth. The sea of failed punks, the shirts with false chains. When Fresca was cool. When bands were named “Silhouette”. The days before Nutrasweet.

What was it worth?”

Science fiction, Bloggers. The fight keeps changing.

In the days of my youth, so long ago now, there was a persistent and fierce debate about how much, and to what degree, science fiction should be kept separate from fantasy. For some reason, this was important at the time.

Such pointless arguments.

In related news, just recently I had occasion to remark on the old Buck Rogers show from the Glen A. Larson idea-abbatoir of the late Seventies, and how I felt some affection for it now…even though I hated it at the time.

Well, but maybe I’m just looking on that effort now, in the same way that I looked on the old Buck Rogers strips then?

Whatever, let’s talk Dr. Who. When the series was rebooted with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor, I was thrilled. Everything that I had loved about old “real” Who was there…the melodrama, the quotable lines, the “silly” villains, the good writing and better acting…why they even had the occasional cardboard set. And in this lousy world of recycled genre we live in, where even the best attempt at revivification turns out to be no more than pastiche of pastiche…”upstream” pastiche, might we not call it?…I finally thought, wow, finally! We’ve finally pierced the membrane of the New Traditionalism, finally! We’ve finally managed, finally, after all these dreary nostalgia-experiments, to resume the past.

I am not so sure I think that now, though. Although I still hope it.

The thing is, there are three ways to make science fiction entertainments outside of the plain old printed word. Tom Bondurant would call these ways Does, Could, and Would…but I would call them slightly differently from a historical context, as Originating, Expressive, and Cynical. Where Expressive represents what is usually a second generation of creators who’ve found a way to talk about how they admire the psychological magnetism unconsciously employed by their predecessors, and Cynical (a loaded word, I’ll admit) stands for a later generation’s emulation of the Expressive attempt…but one fatally flawed by their failure to realize their own urge to dismantle the past, to engage in that Destruction which is also a form of Art…but not, I freely admit, always a type of Art which is my favourite.

Hmm. Actually, that doesn’t seem like quite enough fields, does it? Not to really cover everything that’s going on. So let’s have a couple more!

Patronizing, Non-Patronizing, and Deliberately Dissonant, where the third term denotes a sometimes-uneasy cooperation between the first two elements.

And yet a couple more:

Topical, Non-Topical, and Metatextual.


Idealistic, Exploitive, and Nostalgic.

And one more:

Classical, Modern, and Postmodern.

And okay, one after that:

Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious

Now that last one may seem to have a lot in common with the one before it, but I warn you, I’m being pretty jargonistic here at times. Well, you’ll see how it shakes out. Anyway by my count that makes six fields of three values each, which would combine for a great number of faces on this crazy culture-cube I seem to want to make. But let’s set some Principia-type rules for that combination, let’s set some axioms for this system, and aside from the thing where terms in a set aren’t permitted to combine I mean, like:

The Expressive approach always includes a Non-Patronizing element.

Originating is never Nostalgic.

Cynical is often also Metatextual and/or Postmodern.

Nostalgic can never be Contemporaneous.

Patronizing can never be Postmodern.

Exploitive is not Classical.

God help me, I think I’ve nailed it. Now where’s that Wittgenstein, I thought I told him and Godel to go do the dishes…

Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me. Term-defining:

I hope everything’s fairly clear, except for Classical, Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious. Well, for the purposes of this discussion I define the Classical, Modern, Postmodern distinction as storytelling styles in science fiction and fantasy that depend on a) enlisting the attachment of belief, b) vindicating the attachment of belief, or c) challenging the attachment of belief. Like the Originating, Expressive, and Cynical axis, these are much more the concerns of nuts-and-bolts art than of business, or even high-level authorial tone-setting…and Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious, that just means whether you feel like you can make up your own stuff, or if you have to make up stuff in an environment where what’s gone before you forms a constraint on you (useful or otherwise), or finally if you’re living in a world where influences are simply undeniable, like the air that you breathe, and what you make will necessarily reference what has gone before, because it’s part of it, and you accept that: in fact that’s what drew you to this business in the first place, the richness of influence.


So…how many does that make?

Hopefully the point of it all will not remain obscure for much longer…as you might recall, we were discussing Dr. Who, specifically the “New Who” of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, which I delightedly took at first glance to be primarily Expressive, Deliberately Dissonant with a large component of Non-Patronizing (let’s just call that sort of thing DD/NP, shall we?), Topical, Idealistic, Classical, and Historical.

But now which I’m beginning to suspect is merely Expressive, Deliberately Dissonant (DD/NP), Metatextual, Nostalgic, Modern, and Conscious.

Not that the things in the first list of attributes are automatically the best things to have, in all situations; and not that the things in the second list are automatically the worst. In fact, in my assessment, even things which are Cynical, Patronizing, or Exploitive can be good, in their proper places…

Well, maybe not “Exploitive”hello, Disco Buck Rogers with Wilfred Hyde-White…!

For elaboration, let’s take the case of the Doctor’s infamous Sonic Screwdriver.

To SF fans of an earlier time, the Patronizing approach was a particularly abhorrent one, as it demeaned the aspirations of a literature that was still trying to pull itself out of the ghetto of perceived subliteracy. Science fiction must not allow itself to be confused with “fantasy”, it was thought at that time: there must be no magic wands, no straight-up wish-fulfillment, no unscientific concepts. Where possible, academic journals ought to be cited, and math should be used. That’s what would keep the distinction nice and sharp, and so that was the only way to avoid the Patronizing approach to SF becoming further cemented in the popular consciousness by Exploitive efforts. Rise above Lost In Space, rise above Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea…don’t give ’em the chance to co-opt us.

Of course it was a bad strategy, full of oversimplifications. The faith in “hard” science fiction’s plausibility that persists today, as a sort of dry, unproductive cough left over from that ideological illness, is after all this time still no easier to support with facts — what is truly “hard” science fiction? Very, very little of it has ever been written: the substratum of fantastic supposition is normally quite visible, in your average SF tale. Yes, even when you use math…

But at the time, because of reasons specific to the time (some of which, it must be said, were good reasons), this ineliminable aspect of SF was de-emphasized as much as possible. You see there was all too much of Glen Larson in the bad science fiction of the day: “more astro-sugar for your space tea, Captain? Do try the “phillmok” — what you Earthers call peanut-butter cookies…” Oh, it got pretty bad sometimes, folks. Pretty bad. “What’s the matter, June?” “Oh, it’s this darn electro-comb, can’t you get the handyman-robot to do something about its transistors?” Yeesh. Not just subliterate, but often scientifically and culturally subliterate, too. A real mess, actually.

Hence the early hate for the Doctor’s “sonic screwdriver”, although really…that makes half-decent sense even today, doesn’t it? A sonic screwdriver. My God, when will they make one. But at the time, it sounded like someone saying “love the new space-tie, Bob, what colour do you call that?” “Oh, this? I guess it’s astro-green with a little ultra-yellow in it…it’s the latest thing! Let me tell you, these Plutonian haberdashers really know their stuff! Now let me freshen your grav-Scotch, Tom…”

…Sorry, it’s just really hard to stop with that stuff, once you get going…

But the point is…you know, it just may have been a little Patronizing, at that. Well, I don’t really think of it that way — I’ll give the all-time award for Patronizing to Star Trek: TNG for its near-continuous trekno-wank — “modulate the shield harmonics” my ass — give me a sonic screwdriver any day — but the point is (hey, wasn’t I just talking about the point?), that sometimes a little Patronizing can be good. You don’t want to use too much of it! But in what’s been my business for the last little while (writing alt-country songs), cliche is definitely a kind of resource too, you see? In most kinds of writing, cliche is absolute total instantaneous death every time you touch it, but in some kinds of writing, just a pinch of it qualifies as spice. In the alt-country game it’s even a little more than that: you really have to learn how to ride up pretty hard alongside it, sometimes. Flirting with cliche is pretty important, although you must still never actually make the mistake of leading it on…because you have to be original and Non-Patronizing, too, obviously. But on the other hand, let’s face it, a genre’s a genre, right?


The Brits are past masters at the judicious use of Patronizing elements in their juvenile fiction (although I guess, now that I think about it, that they’ve also produced the most sickeningly egregious overuses of it, too), as they’re also past masters at crafting the Non-Patronizing children’s story. Hey, they’re pretty good at Deliberate Dissonance, too — Harry Potter may be ham-fisted, but it’s dissonant at least, and that’s definitely an artistic accomplishment of some stripe or other. I mean, Harry Potter’s no Hobbit, but then what is?

Back to the sonic screwdriver. What’s wrong with it? Nothing, except at one time it sounded faintly like “astro-sugar”. It sounded like kid stuff. Of course it was kid stuff, and even with that it might not really have sounded like kid stuff, anyway…but at the time, as I’ve been saying, this was an issue people tended to get caught up in.

In fact, it remains an issue, sometimes, even today. Odd as that may seem.

And so now, through the avenue of the sonic screwdriver, we’re back to my ongoing assessment of New Who. The sainted First Doctor was clearly Originating, Deliberately Dissonant with about an equal mix of Patronizing and Non-Patronizing (as most SF efforts in the Originating class happened to be, in those dim dark times before Star Trek), largely Non-Topical, Idealistic, Classical, and Contemporaneous. Later, it got a lot more Expressive, a bit more Non-Patronizing, and less Non-Topical to varying degrees in various episodes.

Now here’s my ideal New Who: E, DD/NP, largely N-T, I, Cl, and H.

And here, to recap, is what I saw when it started up again with Eccleston: E, DD/NP, T, largely I, Cl, and H.

Then that Cl changed to an M.

But I forgave the M, because I thought, yes, they kind of do need to vindicate the enlistment of belief at first — I mean we deserve a little vindication, don’t we? And I actively wanted it to be H — because with so much history, it could hardly function without paying attention to it as a constraint, could it?

But then a little while later I started to see it as E, DD/NP, still mostly T but increasingly Mt, increasingly N, M, and at times rather C. Which wasn’t quite so good.

And now I’m beginning to fear it’s becoming E, DD/P, largely Mt, N, M, and C. Which is fine, but you can run out of freshness pretty quick, that way. And frankly that M is tasting a bit sour on my tongue, now. But, okay: it’s still Who.

However E could change to Cy soooooo easily, you see, given the right conditions. And if that ever happens it won’t be proper Who at all, will it?

Tell you how it breaks down:

We can easily envision other possible regenerations of Who in which the genetic recipe gets fatally garbled. A Cynical Who, an Exploitive Who, a Who which is purely Patronizing. Of course that’s not the real recipe, not really: the real recipe includes a detailed list of ingredients like humour, intelligence, simplicity, character, novelty, excitement, fun. What I’ve attempted to describe in my fields is just how all that stuff gets inflected, how the ingredients are prepared or cooked. You can have a bad plate of moussaka; it’s still moussaka, just not very good. That is, it’s still moussaka unless you do something really radically non-suitable with the cooking.

What’s happening here, in New Who, is that there are several objectives that are being worked towards at the same time. There is, of course, an unavoidable nostalgic objective, cleverly addressed and defused (very effectively at first, I thought) by the conceit of the Time War, and the almost-imperceptible, yet thrilling, creep of the Companion over to the box labelled romantic-interest status. This is a little bit of a postmodern approach, a little bit of an influence-conscious approach, a bit of topicality, and a bit of the stuff I’ve called dissonance, that mixes patronizing elements and non-patronizing ones — and, naturally so, because to be more than pastiche, the modern-day Doctor must be, well, modern-day: Rose can’t be Jo or Sarah Jane, of course! She can’t behave as they did! Modern audiences wouldn’t stand for it. Just as they wouldn’t stand for the early twenty-first century being portrayed as a futurescape, since it’s where they live. And how are we to make the next generation of Whovians, if we don’t put the stuff in that we liked as kids, ourselves? The creepy stuff, the stupid stuff, the jokey stuff, the English stuff. And this concern leads seamlessly to a second objective: to make the thing live again, not just as a nostalgic copy of Who, but as Who itself, the real deal. Dissonance is absolutely indispensible, here, because if it’s all going to work, it can’t wish to be “Dr. Who, except good this time”…this is where the cardboard sets come in, the Cybermen design, the sonic screwdriver. The Doctor’s nonsense about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. K-9. All of it. It must all be embraced, good, bad, and where necessary Patronizing

And yet, the problem here is that “real” Who, ancestral Who, didn’t exactly love the cheese it had to put up with…it just put up with it, that’s all. Which meant, it got very creative because of it, but it still would’ve rather escaped it than deal with it.

Hmm…so if you want to do it right…if you truly want to resume the past…

Now all of a sudden we are deep into the postmodern, here (no, not my “Postmodern”, the real postmodern), because the question becomes, well…how do you resume the past? How is that done? You must have the creativity, clearly. You must be willing to break new ground. But, do you go with the restrictive cheese, when you don’t have to? Or do you not go with the cheese? Or do you mix it up…but then how do you mix it up?

I mean how do you even manage the theme song, for God’s sake, without deciding some things about spareness vs. richness?

In the end, it comes down to aesthetic, pure and simple. The aesthetic must be genius, because it’s the only thing that’s like a compass in this place. Some things must be pumped up. Some things must be pared down. But nobody knows which, except the man with the instincts.

And here we are again at the sonic screwdriver. What to do about it?

I was very pleased to see they kept it.

But I was even more pleased to see that the inevitable lantern-hanging regarding it had a light touch: some undercurrent of acknowledgement that the sonic screwdriver is not a dumb idea, without it openly degenerating into a declaration of the love of kitsch and “my childhood crap, which was brilliant, as opposed to yours which was stupid”. Always a danger, and SF entertainments that succumb to it aren’t exactly tough to find *cough*STAR WARS*cough*…

I mean, I’m still not really sure Billy Dee Williams even knew he was supposed to be in space, you know?

But maybe that’s a topic for another time…

Pickin’ up the space-ladies…hey, you space-ladies are looking absolutely beautiful tonight…

But the point is, you can even do astro-sugar right, if you can only figure out how to.

It’s still not the whole job, though. Well, in fact I am saying (though I certainly seem to be taking my time about it) that it is not even the job, anymore…!

Because what’s perhaps most interesting about New Who, and most central to the entire effort it represents, is the way it handles the Expressive stuff, to avoid the temptations of the Cynical approach. We’ve got some new directions here, the most obvious of which comes out in the sequence with the “Heart Of The TARDIS” — and this is the delicate bit, because this is where it gets goopy: romance symbolically blended with imagination, the two Holiest of the Holies in this new incarnation. Was it too much? Certainly it rode quite hard right up alongside “too much”, and exchanged some sweet nothings with it across the fenceposts. Of course, I liked it, you know…

But that’s when I started to worry about it, too. Because these recipes are delicate things. I don’t know if there’s anyone who can claim to be more delighted than I am, that it has indeed proved possible to resurrect real Dr. Who — resurrecting real anything was starting to look quite impossible for a time, wasn’t it? But now it seems as though there just might be life on Mars after all. Which is great: and we should all be studying the hell out of this experiment with the unexpected and longed-for result…so we can learn how it’s done…

However, this is not to say that we can’t still drown in the sea of Cynical, Modern, and Conscious, just because the menace of the Exploitive seems to have receded…or just because the old familiar sort of Patronizing seems to have disappeared. The naively Exploitive days following the insane success of Star Wars produced many bone-chillingly stupid movies and TV shows…but, they did know how to Originate, sometimes, and we are not so good at that anymore. Sure, they didn’t have a compass — well, Lucas did, and after a while it became apparent that Spielberg did (they’ve both lost it since), but nobody else did, for heaven’s sake even Gene Roddenberry couldn’t get the recipe quite right in the first Star Trek movie — and so it was all pretty lousy moussaka…but their very ham-fisted exploitive brainlessness represented a kind of productivity, and it’s a kind in short supply today. Not that new and even great things aren’t being created today, because they are! But my point is, these can be rough seas too.

Because the fight’s changed.

The old SF vs. fantasy war is over, and I guess somebody won, but I can’t tell who…and probably it doesn’t matter. The old Patronizing is gone — these days, even when somebody exclaims “felgercarb” it doesn’t make us cringe like it used to. Mostly. But there’s a new kind of Patronizing element evolving right under our noses, that’s got nothing to do with the sonic screwdriver or the astro-sugar, and that’s what we should be worried about.

Because, doesn’t vindication become patronizing too, after a while? And doesn’t a casual facility with Nostalgic and Conscious elements become patronizing, eventually? Even Postmodern storytelling or Cynical Destruction-As-Art, when they lose their novelty don’t these, too, start to pat us on the head a little too much for perfect comfort? Just how much legitimate mileage can be got out of these things, anyway? Now that the Pop Wars are over, everything’s finally become Alternative — both “hard” science fiction and “soft” science fiction have learned to either hold hands recombinatively, or suck. But that doesn’t mean the ship’s out of danger, and it doesn’t mean the good guys won. Even as we speak, the Empire of Suck is striking back. And, it is us. Was there ever a show more essentially Patronizing than the rebooted Bionic Woman, for example? And yet that was all for our benefit, the old pointy-shoed crowd…because it wasn’t the sort of patronizing that’s based on astro-sugar at all, that is to say it wasn’t intentionally, exploitively childish

It just wasn’t grown-up, that’s all.

And, is Torchwood so different from Bionic Woman, in this respect? Does it not, just a little, seem to be an example of how the folks in charge of New Who might be as good at getting the recipe wrong, as they are at getting it right? I merely float the idea…I haven’t seen quite enough of Torchwood to really develop an informed opinion about how well it manages my crazy-cube fields, to produce the Expressiveness that could so easily be seen as pure anachronism…so naturally decomposable into a more Cynical approach, given only enough time…

But then I also haven’t seen quite enough of New Who to be able to decide that about it, either. So here’s the crux of it all, here’s the Heart Of The TARDIS if you will: can New Who truly be Resumptive, instead of merely Retro? An old professor of mine used to say that he thought “postmodernism” was a misnomer, because it was really just modernism with a new hat and a fake beard, a sort of Reggie Perrin modernism…and I don’t know if today I would agree with him, but it does seem to me that postmodernism is just what we call a certain kind of denouement, of a certain kind of story…the story of the detonation of History, of course. And, what happens after.

The post-War landscape, rubble and ruin and reconstruction. Chaotic terrain, and choices.

It’s the environment in which I came to adulthood; of course I love it, and I’m fascinated by it. I see all kinds of possibilities in it.

But, maybe my old professor was right, and that landscape’s just a story too. I hope it is, actually: because that would mean there could be such a thing as Resumptive, that was not just Retro in heavy disguise. And that would mean my vague, nagging worries that New Who might not last for another twenty-six years are unfounded, so long as the genius aesthetic doesn’t choose to move away from Expression, or embrace the Patronizing, or engage in too much Nostalgic navel-gazing or Modern fist-pumping and back-slapping.

Because that is the astro-sugar of our times.

Oh well. But if that all fails, there’s always Hellboy, you know!

[SPOILER ALERT: I may not have exactly “finished” this post — so it still may be a little half-baked. Uh…whoops? Damn.]


26 responses to “More Astro-Sugar For Your Space Tea?

  1. The astonishing thing here is that, literally just today, I was thinking about the sonic screwdriver. In fact I had been thinking about something else altogether, when it suddenly came to me unbidden: the logic of why you would have something like the sonic screwdriver, why it would be called a sonic screwdriver, how it ties in to other things in Whovian lore with elegant simplicity, and even how this information might serve as a potential story springboard…all that bouncing around in my head and then you go and write this.

    But I wonder if this hate of which you speak for the sonic screwdriver might have come from a different reason — not the perceived silliness of the name (which my Brilliant Fan Theory will totally solve, like all Brilliant Fan Theories) but because it saves the writer having to rationalize how the Doctor gets out of that locked room. More industrious writers would keep coming up with ingenious new ways for the Doctor to escape traps without resorting to his handy all-purpose tool. (More ambitious writers might say “Why keep locking the Doctor in rooms as a cheap means of building suspense when that’s the most perfunctory and least interesting part of the story?”)

    The current version, though, they just want it to be a phaser — any time the Doctor needs to get into a room, or infiltrate the villain’s headquarters that looks to all outward appearances like a British industrial park, he points the sonic screwdriver at the lock and it blows up. That’s barely a step above kicking it open, isn’t it. It means we never get to see the Doctor actually being clever, bluffing his way in past a baffled guard, say, or sneaking in under false pretenses.

    And don’t get me started on the even more magical and unsupportable “psychic paper” which works the way the writers need it to at any given moment, even if it doesn’t quite match up with the way we were told it worked before. (And isn’t that the quality that makes something “magic” and not “SF” — not following its own previously stated rules?) The psychic paper in his wallet as magic all-purpose ID card just cheats us all: the Doctor doesn’t need to fool anyone because everyone just blindly accepts his authority. Now where’s the inventiveness in that?

    (The Doctor having a wallet. That just gets worse and worse the more I think about it.)

  2. “And isn’t that the quality that makes something “magic” and not “SF” — not following its own previously stated rules?”

    Ahhh…the psychic paper. I knew I was forgetting something. But bless you, O Fannish RAB, for your elegant phrasing of the SF Rule of Rules (mind you, proper fantasy — unless it’s brilliantly subversive fantasy, the fantasy equivalent of Jaime Hernandez violating the 180-degree Toth Dictum just to show it can be done — and yes I have that link if you haven’t seen it — must obey that Rule as well). Yeah, you bet, pal (yes? No?) — because if I recall right, the hate for the sonic screwdriver got magnified when fans started to complain that it was pure plot stupidity — that it was an Anything Machine, and the Doctor didn’t even have to be brilliant while it was around.

    Of course if the Doctor, of all people, can’t be brilliant…well, might as well not have the show at all, then. So they had a point.

    RAB, I don’t believe I’ve told you my Genius Fannish Idea about the BLUE RING the First and Second Doctors wore, but that the Third Doctor didn’t, and no subsequent Doctor has. This ties into Ed’s Supergenius Fannish Idea about Rassilon’s long-term breeding program in the Gallifreyan population…which I can’t reveal publicly, because it doesn’t belong to me…but email me…give me your sonic screwdriver stuff…let’s trade…

    Can I just say, as a teaser, that the Ring is an artifact that makes sure regenerations go smoothly, even if the Time-Lord is so genetically marginal that ordinarily the regenerations would be freakin’ CRAZY? And that by taking it away from the Second Doctor, the Council of the Time-Lords thought they were dooming the Doctor to certain, if eventual, death? Yes, it’s the Ring of Rassilon, and an integral part of the Time-Lord breeding strategy, but honestly I can say no more…!

    Hmm, the Doctor having a wallet. No, it doesn’t sound good. Mind you, I could imagine the Peremptory Doctors (3 and 6…oh my God, and maybe 9?) having one…”You have a wallet?” “Be quiet, Jo! This will take the utmost concentration!” Jesus, what an Uncle Andrew that man would’ve made…

    But the Seventh Doctor surely would’ve hung it around his neck, if he had it. The First and Second Doctors would’ve sniffed at it. The Fourth Doctor couldn’t’ve kept track of it. I shudder to think of the Fifth Doctor having a wallet, unless it was a Zero Wallet. And as far as the Eighth Doctor went…he probably had one, but it was stolen by some punk. Anyway that guy barely knew his own name.

    GOD the Eighth Doctor seems interesting to me now, since I saw THIS!

    Have you seen it, RAB?

    Okay, commence Genius Fannish Secret-Swapping!

  3. There’s nothing wrong with the Doctor having a wallet. Didn’t one of them always carry an umbrella, even when it wasn’t raining? Another had question marks on his coat. Tom Baker used to wave jelly babies at people. The doctors wear their affectations heavily. A little like the British, perhaps.

    A propos of not very much at all, I caught a bit of the latest one, and Tennant was frigging around with his sonic screwdriver trying to open a car door while some old guy asphyxiates on engine fumes caused by malevolent aliens (as it happens, I’m not convinced of this plotline at all), and we’re all shouting ‘kick the fucking windscreen in’ at the television screen. But can our Timelord think of this elementary oxygen-supplying manoeuvre? Nope. Perhaps he needs a sonic half-a-brick as well.

  4. Just have to say: suddenly I remember where I saw my beloved Fourth Doctor again, and witnessed his gravitas

    It was in the supplementary material of the Sarah-Jane “Reunion” episode, that Ed gave me. The Doctor explaining to Sarah that she couldn’t go to Gallifrey…

    Some good acting, there. A heavy moment.

    As to the Doctor having a wallet: the one with question marks on his coat could have produced one, and if anyone had complained he probably would have told them to shut up! But the one with the umbrella? I think of him as the Agatha Christie Doctor: if you don’t see it stapled to his head in his first appearance in the episode, it’s probably off-limits.

    Say, there’s an interesting idea as far as classifying the Doctors goes! How likely is each one to just pull something out of his ass!

    From what you say, Clone, the Tenth Doctor could use a little help that way. Eccleston would’ve kicked the windscreen in, wouldn’t he?

  5. I never watched “Doctor Who” until its revival, so my perspective lacks nostalgia or any sense of connection to the old show. As a newfangled viewer, the newfangled show does not feel like a rehash or a simple revisiting of some dead, beloved series. It’s not fanboy necrophilia.

    Also, the “sonic screwdriver” doesn’t bother me in and of itself. I don’t think it needs set rules; it’s more like Doctor Strange’s magic. Used well, it’s an excellent bit of handwaving to get past mechanical plot points quickly and resume the meaty parts of the story; used poorly, you could replace the Doctor with any dork who happened to carry a “sonic screwdriver.”

    Having hard rules for what it can and can’t do would be fine, as long as the show didn’t bore us to death with elucidating what they are. The worst would be if the series employed that annoying trope of teaching the viewers what it can and can’t do by having the Companion du Jour yell “Use the Sonic Screwdriver!” in moments of crisis, only for the Doctor to yell back “I can’t! It can’t do [x]!” Gack. Bad writers would consider that clever insertion of exposition; everyone else considers it drivel. Just keep that crap behind the scenes, and always ask yourself if there’s a cooler, more exciting way for the Doctor to do something than to -ahem- whip out his tool. And reserve the SS for the trivial crap. It should never be The Answer.

    Truth be told, I’m not a real big fan. “Doctor Who” ranges from pretty good (the episode “Blink”) to miserable (the evolvo-vampire-monster-in-the-hospital-ball episode). I saw one or two Eccleston episodes out of curiosity, went away, and later got sucked into the Tennant series for a while simply out of carnal desire for Freema Agyeman. (Sweet merciful Jeebus, she’s beautiful.) With her gone, I’ve lost the impetus to keep up with it.

    I heard an interview with the guy behind “Battlestar Galactica,” and he groused about his days writing for “Star Trek” and how often episodes were resolved with techno-babble. (Didn’t the first season of “Star Trek: Voyager” do that every week?) One of his principles in BG is to never solve a crisis with techno-babble. I may have to watch that show someday…

  6. I *do* love the categorizing! I swear, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m analyzing something or just making lists, and is there always a difference? Anyway, don’t be surprised if I use those ideas for something. Sorry I can’t join in the Doctor Who conversation, but I’ve never actually seen an episode.

    On the subject of plots being resolved by writers pulling things out of hats, allow me to direct your attention to one of my favourite fantasy writers, Barbara Hambly. In particular her ‘Darwath Trilogy’, I suppose, although she has other good examples. See, Hambly is rigorous. Whatever solution her story needs, she makes sure to build it into the rules of her story and of how magic works in her world, so that when it’s revealed, it’s a) a surprise, but b) sensible, c) inevitable, and d) obviously not cheating. It’s a shame the market has forced her off into the less interesting field of historical fiction.

  7. Ooooooh, hung over today…hope I made sense…

    By all means, use the categories, Matthew! I’d like to think they work for everything SF/fantasy except the short story and the novel. Never heard of Barbara Hambly — will have to look her up!

  8. Hey,

    I really like the axes. At first I thought it was going to be a bit hard to swallow, but then, suddenly, it all seemed so clear (so I’ve probably misunderstood, natch). And categorisation on these axes seems to really get at something.

    Now you say old Doctor Who was and new Doctor Who should ideally be EDNICH, but I’ve got to disagree with Non-Topical. I think the show was Topical since they dropped the neutron bomb on Skaro back in 1964, since every other story in the 70s is about energy, since the late-80s waved its overtly progressive colours. So I think of old Doctor Who as being EDTICH.

    But the new Doctor Who? EDTICH you thought, and I think its first season is indeed, though the Classical is tinged with Modernity. EDMNMCs you think now? Hmm.

    Let’s start with the fifth axis. I agree that the show has become very Modern, and I agree that this, the fist-pumping and back-slapping (part of what Mark K-Punk calls “premature emotional ejaculation”), the vindicating the attachment of belief, is patronising. I don’t like it. But it is not the whole story—it is somewhat offset by the other half of Davies’s dual vision, by just how bad the human race and how callous the Doctor can get. And then, the show does do some great stuff with vindication, in Season 2 and 3. So it’s playing with fire, and it burns a bit, but I think they are getting away with it.

    On the third axis, as I said, I think the show was Topical in 2005, but has fallen into Metatextuality since the regeneration. Davies has a great activist model of Time, but I think it has sufferred somewhat with the whole The Doctor Is Wonderful thing and especially the Rose Is The One thing (which are really two sides of the same coin). I’m trying to work up a blog post on how I think the focus on the romance obscures and damages the show’s political desires.

    Fourth axis: I disagree. I think the show is Idealistic. It’s not just the Time War. The use of UNIT, Daleks, Sarah Jane (somewhat), Cybermen, and Macra are all towards decidedly non-Nostalgic purposes, while the show definitely moves forward with the Family Slitheen, Ood, Judoon, etc.

    Similarly I disagree with your sixth axis diagnosis. I think the show is not Conscious (determined by influence) but Historical (constrained). New stories and new monsters and new ideas are given a Doctor Who shape by what has gone before, but they are new.

    I think the show is resumptive rather than retro. In fact, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion if what we were watching now was unchanged, but fifteen seasons magically appeared between old and new Who. “New Who” is a misleading term. Better to think of it as the Davies Era. Sets it in perspective with the Lloyd Era, Letts Era, Hinchcliffe Era, Bidmead Era, Cartmel Era, etc. Up close, particular stories and seasons of “Old Who” don’t look so EDNICH or EDTICH.

    (But in The Sarah Jane Adventures (the good spinoff), and at the end of Season 3 and start of Season 4 there are some stories that are very Old Who.)

  9. I don’t mind psychic paper one jot.

    Back in the mid-90s, when SF and F fight was on, Paul Cornell and Matt Jones (now writers for New Who) said that the TARDIS was like the Narnian Wardrobe or Hellraiser’s Puzzle Box, and that the (old) show was fantasy.

    Primarily I would say the Doctor doesn’t travel in time, he travels in genres. So sometimes the show was SF. And sometimes it wasn’t. In any case, it certainly lacked consistency on things like the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, the Doctor’s ring, etc.

  10. Eccleston would have kicked that windscreen, all right. And probably the aliens’ heads as well.

    TBH I’m not much a Doctor Who fan, but Russell T’s reboot was amazing. The show had deteriorated into a joke long before it was cancelled, and no-one had any hope its relaunch would amount to much. Eccleston, who has the brooding threat of a man who keeps his enemies’ skinned carcasses in his wardrobe, was a great choice, just because he was so unlike all previous Doctors.

    (To comics fans, obviously, it was all reminiscent of 1990’s-style personality relaunches ie Cyclops starts wearing a leather jacket and an aggressive expression, but that’s by the by.)

    But where Russell T. was truly inspired was in the stupidly brave decision to cast Billie Piper as Rose. She was washed up at 21, a national joke really, with no form as an actress at all. A few episodes of Eccleston and Piper shooting sparks at each other made that series.

    Since then it’s lost its way. If Russell T writes the scripts, all’s well. Otherwise it tends to flounder. Tennant was much more a traditional doctor – bit of a dandy, hidden menace, way with the ladies. Freema, as Harvey points out, is not only gorgeous but fantastic in every way other than she’s not Rose. But she’s the one who came after the national darling, and the BBC don’t seem to have confidence in her. Instead we get Catherine Tate (I guess this casting was done on demographic grounds, as she’s popular wit’ da youf), who is turning into a Titanic-scale disaster. She’s sour and aggressive. Being a comedian, she’s good for comedic moments, but it falls apart when she’s required to take an idealistic role. She’s a woman whose catchphrase is ‘do I look bovvered?’ And she and Tennant have no chemistry at all. I can’t imagine why he doesn’t shove her out into the nearest neutron vortex.

  11. Hmm, I was going to go to sleep, but…

    David: of course the earliest of Old Who is ODNICH by my view, ODTICH by yours…but what the hell, I’ll agree anyway! ODTICH it is.

    Then later Who gets a bit more Expressive: EDTICH.

    Hmm…I can’t believe these axes are of any use at all, but they really don’t seem too bad, do they?

    Then it gets EDTIMH, then EDTNMH, then EDMNMC…

    Huh, or maybe not, just as you say: I may worry about it becoming Retro rather than Resumptive, but so far so good, right? And to see the forula change a little bit from time to time is no danger, so long as it keeps changing back. I think I sounded like I have no confidence in what you wisely call the Davies Era — but I do, I do, of course I do! After all, he’s pulled off the big magic trick, hasn’t he? I only worry because…well, because it’s my only marketable skill, I guess…

    On the “Davies Era”…Ed would like that, he likes to say about the L.A. Doctor that it was just another genre the Doctor travelled into (and then out of) so why fuss? Which is a good point…and a good point to bear in mind. However, as soothing as I find the name “Davies Era”, I think you can’t let the case for “New Whoness” go unmade — right from the words “Time War”, the Doctor of the Davies Era is saturated with acknowledgements of discontinuity — cancellation — and I think it’s fair to say that these acknowledgements form a big thematic support, and aren’t just window-dressing.

    And Clone: I’m actually kind of chuckling at the very-your-part-of-the-world “TBH” contraction. I don’t know if that’s a functioning idiom in Australia, but in Canada we don’t really use it.

    And yeah: the Eccleston Doctor. That really got my attention. And then when I realized who Billie Piper was, my mind was blown!

  12. I tried to find the picture of Billie Piper and her ex-husband, a washed-up DJ called Chris Evans. Someone snapped them coming out of a supermarket dressed, erm, unglamorously. With an entire trolley full of alcohol. Galifrey it wasn’t.

  13. “Back in the mid-90s, when SF and F fight was on”

    The 90s? I thought P(il)LO(c)K meant the SF/F conflict from about 20 years before that?
    (To my mind at least, no SF/F conflict post the 70s one has ever been as vehement or divisive.)

  14. Well I wasn’t around for that fight. But, I didn’t use the definite article. The fight is a recurring thing. Even today SF authors and fans argue about it. Even just the other week I was reading something like that. It sucks you in—I’ve been thinking about the SFness of Star Wars recently. Yeah, someone won, but no one knows who, and it doesn’t matter.

  15. Just to clarify, my objection to the psychic paper has nothing to do with it being “fantasy” rather than “science fiction” and only to do with the fact that it cheats the actors and the viewers out of scenes where the Doctor gets past a sticky situation through charm, charisma, doubletalk, and bluffing with a front of privileged authority.

    “My identification? Ah, yes, good man, nice to see you run a taut ship here, you’ll be getting a recommendation to your supervisor from me and no mistake, word to the wise though, rumour has it certain undesirables are planning to infiltrate the philosophunculists’ conference on level six so keep your eyes open, there’s a good chap…” And before the guard can process the words, the Doctor has breezed past…

    Maybe that example is a bit too Tom Baker, though McCoy and Troughton had some good moments along the same lines and Tennant could probably do it well if asked. The problem is he’s not been asked, because someone thought a scene showing the Doctor using his charm and wit and centuries of experience to con Queen Victoria wouldn’t be entertaining. Huh? What’s up with that?

    As far as the fantasy thing goes…I’ve got no quarrel with the idea of psychic paper, it’s even fairly well grounded in pseudoscience within the show, given a semi-telepathic TARDIS that translates languages all the time. When I call its nature in the show “magic” I’m not talking about that SF/F dichotomy: as has been pointed out, good fantasy is internally consistent and follows its own stated rules. I’m using “magic” in the Joe Quesada sense, the “it doesn’t have to make sense, because it’s magic” sense, going against the rules of good fantasy or SF.

  16. Naturally, RAB, I got that from what you were saying! Though it might not have come across as such given my advanced state of dribbling at that time. Anyway I think there are some Doctors whose use of the psychic paper (always remembering the consistency rule) are better-indicated than others, disregarding when it was introduced:

    One could use it: in a sort of ultra-peremptory “this young man’s an idiot, I’m just going to flash the psychic paper at him now”…but of course that wasn’t necessary was it? The psychic paper came in later than that, surely?

    Two, in my perfect world, would never need it: he can simply trick his way where he needs to go.

    Three, oddly, is pretty much psychic paper himself; well, would you get in his way?

    Four simply sails right past all questions, walks right in: okay, it’s my Doctor, but you’ve got to admit Four has a strange glamour about him.

    Five could use it; he might have to, in fact. Never was there a Doctor with more sense of pure urgency than Five!

    Six doesn’t need it. I really have grown to like Six over the years. He’s a brilliant Doctor.

    It would be funny as hell when Seven used it. Make official people genuflect to the authority of a meek man given to Pooh-like comments…and yet, the most menacing Doctor.

    Eight…Christ, maybe Eight really needed it! Poor Eight! The most hapless Doctor! Someone should really write and draw some long-form brilliant fan-fic cartoons that centre on his importance…

    What should happen when Nine uses it is, it doesn’t work! He looks too shifty and blackguardish; a regenerational problem, the psychic paper doesn’t work as well for him. Of course: only Rose can see this Doctor is trustworthy! A funny bit would’ve been it not working, then him smacking it like banging a TV set, then Rose sweetly picking it up, and it works for her.

    Damn it, I don’t remember (drinking again), when was this bloody device introduced?! I like it, mind you…

    For Ten perhaps it should be temporarily on the blink…but then again Ten is the “new new Doctor”, isn’t he? And he’s sort of a bit of a golden child. Actually, much like Three, he shouldn’t need to use it: people just like him, don’t they?

    Hmm, that was a fun exercise. Oh, and I’ve got to tell you a little bit about the conversation Ed and I had SOME DISTANT TIME AGO IN THE PAST ED…!

    Me: “So about the new Master…”

    Ed: “The (in proper accent) ‘new new Master’?”

    That would be what the swells call a sockdologer, there…I had nothing to say, at that point. I was going to complain about how I felt let down that OLD and SCARY Derek Jacobi wasn’t going to be contrasted to YOUNG and SILLY David Tennant…

    But: “new new Master”. I’m not going to argue. As always, as I was just saying to RAB, there’s a sense of Very Large Pattern underlying the Doctor Who series, that we’ll never quite get to see…and who am I to complain about the new new Master, when he so obviously fits right into the motion of the current gyre? And obviously, you see, he knows it…well, that’s what the Master does: he knows things.

    Whoof! Have to go to a dentist’s appointment tomorrow! This was probably fairly incoherent: a friend of mine left me a message yesterday saying I should have a hair of the dog, but unfortunately I only got it at about five o’clock this evening…

    But then again, my dentist is a forgiving man.

  17. David, I wasn’t meaning to dis your perspective (and I’m still not, despite what I say next), it’s just that from mine, any SF/F conflict in later years is a Cold War with occasional local flareups, as opposed to the Open War of the seventies, and seems peaceful in comparison.

    And Bill, I’m pretty sure the psychic paper started with Nine, unless it showed up in some Seven stories I didn’t sit through.

  18. Also, how’s this for Patronizing? Heard on Voyager: “it’d be like trying to re-write a novel after the only data-file’s been deleted!”

    Way to reach, there, buddy.

  19. Pingback: For Matthew « A Trout In The Milk·

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