Doctor Who and the Robot

August 9, 2009

While I’ve been struggling to write anything of substance, I thought I would indulge myself and write about Doctor Who [SPOILER WARNINGS APPLY]. Yes, I know we just had a DW post, and at this rate we shall have to change the blog name to Who Goggles, but it’s all I got at the moment and sometimes writing about something pleasant can inspire more advanced and cutting patriarchy blaming. Heck, I may be able to throw in some blaming with my Whovianism! Something like, for example, Jo’s post the second entry below this one. A post I agree with completely, by the way. However, I think I’ll mostly be writing a bit of a love-fest-type of thing. Kind of like MaryAnn Johansen’s Who posts at Flick Filosopher,┬áor Catriona Mills’ Circulating Library live-Who-blogging posts. I may try my hand at one of the latter when I watch the next Classic Who story on my list. I think they’ll probably be mostly love-fests because I am aware of how much my love of Who will forgive a multitude of sins – like giant plot holes, absurd twists, deus ex machina, etc. But I shall try and keep at least one feminist eyeball open and not glazed over!

So after getting hooked on DW by watching the Reboot, I thought I would go back to the very beginning and watch all the Classic Who from the first Doctor onwards. But, while watching Youtube clips waiting for stuff to download, er borrow, er buy, I ended up saying fuck it and went straight to the Classic Doctor I wanted to see most: Tom Baker. He was, sort of, my first Doctor after all. Being Canadian, I didn’t grow up with Who but did manage to watch something of the reruns that PBS was showing in the 80s. I remember nothing about the show, not the story, not the villains, not even the house I watched it in, but I remembered Four! “Who is that guy?” I remember thinking. I always thought there was something subversive about him, so I wanted more of that. And, I mean, look at him! ­čśÇ (lovely photo borrowed without permission from Kaldor City).

Right! Anyways, Robot.

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Will the Voice Of Authority puh-leeeeeze change?

June 13, 2009

**Warning: some slight Doctor Who spoilers, up to the end of Season Three.**

It’s only taken about four years, but I’m finally catching up with Doctor Who. In (very) general terms, the newest iteration of the classic sci-fi series is really making me happy: fast-paced, witty dialogue cavorting along, effortlessly charming the viewer into following, especially in the David Tennant years. I’m now at the end of Season 3, and in spite of some minor details, I am actually quite pleased with the treatment of gender in the show. Both Rose and Martha are intelligent individuals with quite different personalities (not just a cookie-cutter “here’s your female companion”); both are a joy to watch, in spite of the occasionally typical infatuation story lines. Riffs on Captain Jack’s ‘pansexuality’ are entertaining, well-timed, and are treated at times with just enough gravity that the humor in it turns on humanity, rather than some caricature of homosexuality.

But seriously, people. Time Lords are supposed to be* the most intelligent beings in the multiverse, with impressive talents and access to advanced technology. So why is it, in all the possibilities in all the possible worlds, that ALL of the Time Lords are white men?

The easy answer is: we live in a society in which white + male is seen as the default. One could go so far as to say they are the only people who are consistently treated as full human beings. But seriously, O Writers of Science Fiction: How is it that in imagining myriad variety to existence, this old trope keeps popping up?

The Doctor is, in many ways, the embodiment of Male Privilege. He walks into situations with absolute confidence in his ability to fix it, even when he does not know how he’ll do it, or even what the situation is. He does not identify himself to the satisfaction of those who question his authority. He completely ignores many challenges to that authority. He speaks; everyone else (eventually) listens. In one episode, The Doctor must make himself human to escape his adversary, including suppressing all consciousness of ever being a Time Lord. His character is still the same embodiment of privilege, if in a slightly more day-dreaming, less self-confident package. His human persona is a professor at a boys’ school, a position of authority over lesser (in this case, younger) beings. His position has not changed much at all, even if his species has. All his behavior is, of course, treated as Right and Good, as though we silly humans should know our betters when we see them, and when we don’t, we’re chuckled at for the buffoons we are.

Members of the Time Lords’ species have the ability to regenerate their bodies when those bodies are damaged, and those bodies are ostensibly have completely different skeletons (“new teeth”) and muscular systems (“new voice”). Everything about each regenerated Time Lord is new, except his gender and skin color. If his entire body changes, why in the world wouldn’t his skin color change too? There is likely some theoretical* reason why biological sex (and, by extension, gender) is immutable in a Time Lord, but if The Doctor is going to be consistently male and functionally heterosexual (as evidenced by the constant line of female companions), then Time Lords are clearly not unilaterally asexual or non-gendered beings. Biological sex exists; gender presentation does too. So why lack the creativity to play around with those very basic human traits? Why insist on every Doctor (and Master, don’t forget!) being Male and White?

The good Doctor has only one regeneration left, if Wikipedia is to be believed. How about something slightly different for a change? The role requires a British actor; Britain isn’t just made up of the native Gauls and Norman French anymore. How about letting the next person to play The Doctor to be of Indian or Pakistani descent, or descended from immigrants from anywhere else in the world? How about letting the Doctor be a woman for once? The Voice of Authority is virtually always the old (white) man in western social reality. Why does some of our most creative fiction have to fixate on that too?

==x-posted at The Geek Side==
*Read: bullshit

Not Dead

May 12, 2009

No really! We’re not. But I do apologize for the dearth of blogging. My, it’s been dry, hasn’t it? Well, to try and make up for our quietness I thought I’d bring you a little bit of two of my favourite things: Doctor Who and French and Saunders! Made best by squishing them together ­čśÇ



*actual feminist blogging forthcoming*


January 3, 2009

It’s official! ­čśÇ the new Doctor Who is Matt Smith!

Okay, okay, I know eloriane and I said that we weren’t going to turn this into a Gender Doctor Who Goggles blog but it’s been a few days since we’ve last posted about the Doctor. As eloriane mentioned to me elsewhere, the Doctor could have saved the universe in that time so *pish* – time for another one. Onwards.

I don’t know this Matt Smith fellow, never heard of him. Maybe if I were British I would have? In any event, not having heard of him before is kind of good because that means that his face is a blank slate to me. I don’t need to work at getting used to seeing him play the Doctor rather than That Other Famous Role he did, if he had. And in the brief little interview of him at the BBC website you can see him flipping his fingers about in this manic and adorable way as he struggles to find words. Very cute! But, alas, also very David Tennant-y.

And that Matt Smith rather looks like Tennant (another thin, cute, manic, adorable white guy) is rather disappointing. I wanted something different. Eccleston, while white and male, was also very different physically, as well as being darker, more intense. That’s interesting. It forces us to look beyond the physical into the actual character and personality of the Doctor, shifting our awareness a little when we recognize, but don’t recognize him.

I think that is one of the things that’s very exciting about Doctor Who – this ability of the main character to change form, to regenerate. It is, as I said before, a studio’s wet-dream of a character. But it also allows for some very interesting stories and developments. Here we have someone who regenerates every cell in their body, a way of cheating death. Consequently we can have stories where his non-time lord companions try to deal with his physical changes, or stories where people who know him in a future incarnation don’t immediately recognize him, or where people who knew him before might not recognize him now. And we also have the capability of doing something really interesting:

The writers could make the new Doctor a black man. Or a woman, of any colour.

Doing so would highlight the resounding humanness of all of us – that we really aren’t that different. But, sadly and aggravatingly, there are a lot of people who still hold to this notion that people of colour are somehow deeply biologically different than white people, or that male humans are distinctly and profoundly different than female humans. But how much of that is actually true? I mean, certainly there are differences between males and females, people of european or african or asian decent – this much is obvious. But how much of that is truly deep? I suspect that it is more true of sex than race, as the physical differences between the two (main) sexes do run through the entire body and its systems, whereas with race it really is kind of superficial. However, as soon as I write that I start to think I may be wrong. There really isn’t that much genetic diversity within the human species and the sex differences seem to ┬álargely focus on reproduction.

In any event, if the Doctor can regenerate every cell in his body and become tall and thin, when he used to be shorter and rounder – if he can go from being pale and blond to darker – if he can change his skeleton from being robust to being gracile, why the hell can’t he change his skin colour? Because apparently we still live in a deeply racist world. The resistance to the notion of a black Doctor that has been occurring in the Who fandom is really disappointing and distressing. It’s common enough that there is a Doctor of Colour Fail Bingo Card.┬áBlah. And a female Doctor?┬áPreposterous. That would be some crazy made-up shit to have a character who can regenerate EVERY cell in their body actually change their body a wee bit.

I think that this resistance to a black or female (or, heavens, black and female) Doctor illustrates something very important about how race and sex inform our notions of identity, be it our own or someone else’s. I’ve seen some Who fans describe the Doctor as needing to be British, with the implication that the character is somehow quintessentially British. They may be right. Certainly when I think of “eccentric” (and I’m Canadian), I think of British (and male). And from what little I’ve seen I think it’s safe to say that the Doctor is somewhat eccentric! So, why is the quintessential British eccentric white? Someone in the Doctor of Colour Fail Bingo thread linked to up above snarked that Paterson Joseph, who seemed to be the one most suspected of filling the role, was in fact a British male. I think this whole debate also illustrates the tendency to make black women completely invisible. We talk about the new Doctor being black or female, with the implication in the wording being that if it is one, it is not the other.

If the Doctor were to regenerate into a non-white male body the writers would likely have to have some kind of comment in there somewhere that that was cool, or interesting. Or irrelevant. Sadly, we are not yet at that moment.

So, while I suspect that Matt Smith will do a bang-up job as the Doctor, I am a bit disappointed.

Doctor Who and Gender

December 28, 2008

**SPOILERS (ending of Season 4)**

I had written in my first post about Dr Who┬áthat I wasn’t sure how much of the excitement I felt was New TV Show infatuation. Time will tell, of course, but I do think I’ve been seeing reasons to support my new-found love (as well as the usual problems that women always face when looking for media that doesn’t marginalize them). Some of the reasons for this love has to do with the female characters (especially Donna, I’ll admit), and some of it has to do with the humour and the quirkiness of the main character, and all of the other things that I wrote about in my first post.

On the DVD of the first season there was an interview with Christopher Eccleston about becoming the new Doctor. He starts off by saying that one of the first things the writer(s) of the show wanted to do was get rid of the sexism of the old one. That they recognized how under-written the female characters were and wanted to do that differently. And he actually used the word “sexist.” People so often will try and find some other word, any other word, than sexist or misogynistic. So much so that it’s actually kind of weird hearing people use it outside of feminist gatherings. While I’ve only seen 3 episodes of Season 1 and about 7 or 8 episodes of Season 4, I’ve found so far that their attempt to not be sexist has had some success, at least (what happens to Donna notwithstanding).

This is one of the things that I’m liking about the reboot: it’s not the Doctor saving the woman all the time, although he does do that fairly often. She sometimes saves him: Rose saves his life in the pilot, Martha saves him in at least one episode, Donna apparently saves him earlier in their relationship. I also like how his female companions help him resolve┬ádilemmas, like how┬áDonna solves some riddle due to her Super Temp powers, or kicks down the locked door when the villains are after them because the Doctor’s screwdriver isn’t doing much. Okay, I loved that last one! She sighs impatiently and says something to the effect of “oh get out of the way.” ­čśÇ Ha! So far, the women aren’t bimbos, helpless and squealing (well, not all the time). At least one of them actually looks like a regular person, not a fashion model. Of course, both of the women who played Rose and Martha are quite pretty and slim in a typical way. I can’t comment too much with regards to Martha because I’ve only seen her in that two-part story from Season 4, but Rose so far, while very pretty, is also dressed in baggy jeans, a loose zippered hoodie and sneakers. Not exactly sexed up. She just looks like a regular person. Very refreshing.

There definitely seems to be more of an equal footing between this recent reincarnation of the Doctor and his female companions, even given the Doctor’s advanced age, experience and IQ/awareness. Not completely equal, but definitely more equal. You can see the writers are trying to not be sexist or otherwise exclusionary, or are sometimes aware of how much the female companion falls into the “plucky sidekick girl” trope. Case in point, in Season 4 the Doctor refers to Donna as his “plucky companion” and she practically sneers at him “Plucky?! I’ll ‘pluck’ you, mate.” Ha! I love Donna.


Another thing that Eccleston mentioned in that interview was that they had done away with the Doctor’s know-it-all, paternalistic behaviour towards his human companions. As the old series is but a dim memory, I can’t say how well they’ve succeeded in this regard. Based only on what I’ve seen so far, however, I would agree that they don’t have much of that at all. The Doctor actually depends on Donna’s intelligence and perceptions fairly regularly (“come on, Donna! Think!” cries the Doctor, as they’re trying to save the world). I’ve really been enjoying the Doctor’s fallibility and Donna’s strength. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and, working together they make a really good team. I haven’t seen enough of Rose (and certainly not Martha) to know how much that is true with them as well, but I’m hopeful.

I think it is a reflection on how things have changed in the last 30 years that the writer’s of a tv show would a) be aware of sexism, b) recognize it in an older show, and c) try to do things differently. It seems to me that it has become standard in some respects to have female characters that are strong and are more on an equal footing to the male characters. Remembering old Bond films for example, yuck, compared to the more recent incarnations. Of course, it is also true that women continue to be sexually exploited in film and are repeatedly relegated to sidekick or victim or plot point. If they even show up in the film at all (looking [sadly] at you, Pixar). As I’ve said before, with feminism it’s not always either/or but rather both/and. Bond may be paired with a female character that is strong and intelligent, but she’ll still likely either be in a bikini or need rescuing in the end (er, or both!). In fact, I would argue that the stronger and more kick-ass the female character, the more likely you’ll see her sexed up and in ridiculous shoes.

Which is another reason why I love Donna. Did I mention that I love Donna? She’s strong and intelligent, and most definitely not sexed up. She really goes against that trend. And, you know, thinking on eloriane’s and my recent Doctor Who posts, this makes the way her character ends up all the more upsetting. It’s not just that she’s no longer going to be the companion, but that the woman that seems most like the Doctor’s equal (even calling herself that in an alternate Good-bye scene) gets the worst ending. Going back to being a regular old temp. Being stripped of not only her super brain, but her memories and confidence in herself that she obtained while traveling with the Doctor.

So while the creators of the new Doctor Who seem to have the beginnings of a feminist awareness, they still seem to drop the ball in some ways. Much like the rest of the world, for marginalized peoples of all stripes it’s usually two steps forwards and one step back. I do try to not be satisfied with crumbs, as just once I would really like to have a whole slice of pie.┬áTantalizingly, Doctor Who at times seems to offer this. I’m still annoyed that at the last moment they took it away.

Doctor Who, “Midnight,” and the voices that get listened to.

December 24, 2008

I’ve seen “Midnight” twice now, and although I adored it story-telling-wise, there’s some subtext that’s still bothering me. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) I read a blog post a month ago about how having everyone at the end go “what was the hostess’ name, again?” was a terrible way to “honor” her sacrifice, since it made her a symbol instead of a person. (I wish I could find that post!) While I was trying to find it again, I came across this one, which is even more interesting, in some ways.

Bottom line? I think RTD was trying to illustrate that people in service occupations have a unique perspective on events and humanity, and that it’s important to remember that they are people and their opinions count. But it’s unsettling that “people in service occupations” apparently translates to “black women” for RTD — especially after the third series.

And so now I want to think out loud on the topic of whose voices get heard, and why. This was an episode all about voices, and the power they can have. The creature first copies, then synchronizes with, then steals the voices it finds within the train. It zeroes in on Sky Sylvestry as the most susceptible in the beginning, and then as it learns and gets stronger it recognizes the Doctor’s voice as the strongest in the room, and takes it.

The Doctor’s voice was the most influential, but it wasn’t the only correct one (at least, not at first). Dee Dee, the Professor’s assistant, frequently has important points to make (like, say, the fact that they’re NOT running out of air), but unless the Doctor shouts everyone into silence first, no one will listen to her. In fact, they do a lot of hushing her. The very first time we meet her, she introduces herself to the Doctor and the Professor just says, “don’t bother the man!” despite the fact that he had just introduced himself all of ten seconds earlier. Dee Dee knew that it meant nothing for the engines to be “stabilized” but everyone ignored her in favor of the “slight delay” theory. She knew right away that the creature hadn’t moved from Sky to the Doctor, and she said it several times, but no one even acknowledged her enough to hush her until the fifth time she’d shouted it. Her voice is not listened to.

The hostess is more self-silencing. Because of her job she tries not to give any input, other than the “please return to your seats!” kind, and she doesn’t really push it. That is, until she says what everyone’s thinking and says “we should throw her out!” But when she changes her mind again later, everyone has decided again that they don’t want to listen her. At one point a character says something like, “What does she know? She’s just the hostess!” Her voice is only very, very selectively listened to, and it’s more complicated (but more on that later).

And then there’s Jehtro. Right from the beginning I liked him (and kind of disliked his parents) because he’d make snarky, insightful comments, and they’d immediately tell him to be quiet. It was a more straightforward case of silencing, like with Dee Dee. Except then he stopped protesting, so much. It seemed clear to me that he agreed with Dee Dee about the creature, that he also thought it was stealing the Doctor’s voice, but all he would say was “I don’t know.”

Now the question of why. Why is Dee Dee so resolutely ignored and belittled? Well, she’s just some student. She’s just some woman. She’s just some black person. She’s just some professor’s assistant. And she’s just been hearing these things most of her life. She speaks quietly and with hesitation because she already knows that her voice does not have power. I think it’s very much the same with the hostess. She’s been given responsibility over the group, but “hostess” is not a position that comes with much authority. Her pleas to get people to sit down, her attempts to convince everyone that nothing’s wrong, were superficial and short-lived because, like Dee Dee, she already knows that no one is listening.

Why is the hostess listened to one moment, but ignored the next? Everyone seemed thrilled with her when her suggestion was to throw Sky out of the car, but when she starts arguing against chucking the Doctor, she’s invisible again. She has to chuck herself and Sky out instead to get them to stop. I would argue that this is not because her voice was any more or less powerful earlier in the day, but instead that she (like Dee Dee) was always subject to the cooperation of the others when she attempted to be heard. When she was saying what everyone wanted to hear, they were all glad to agree with her, but when she started challenging their preferred world view they withdrew their approval and without their voices supporting her own, she was silenced. She wasn’t powerless, but she had to act, and act desperately, to have influence. I think it’s no coincidence that she and Dee Dee were black, female, and in positions of service.

However, Jethro is notably not a woman of color in a service role. He is “just a kid,” and outside the norm in ways that earn him no respect from the adults. But he is choosing to exclude himself from the privileged group, and he can’t quite do it– he is still at a luxury palace with his wealthy, white, kyriarchy-approved parents. And when all the shit starts going down and people are getting murdered, he kind of wants to be in that privileged group again, and he swallows his voice. I think he probably could have chosen instead to make himself heard. His voice has more of society’s support, and if he’d sided with Dee Dee the two of them might have been able to convince the others. Plus, unlike Dee Dee, he wasn’t at much risk of being chucked out the window for disagreeing– his parents were unlikely to forget themselves, and their connection to him, that completely. Indeed, I think he should have spoken, and spoken loudly. It could have saved lives!

But this is an episode about, among other things, the way people fall apart in the face of the unknown. He was afraid. They were all afraid. He, and everyone else, should have behaved better, but people get a little crazy when they’re afraid. And since I’m feeling generous (Chrismas spirit!) I’m going to err on the side of optimism and say that the episode was also about the danger of devaluing voices that deserve to be heard. I think one can make the case that the text criticizes the dismissal of Dee Dee and the hostess. Of course, one could also make the argument that the text does no such thing, that we’re not even supposed to notice the unfortunate narratives about gender and race. After all, the Doctor gets his voice back at the end of the episode, but Dee Dee hasn’t changed, and the hostess’ voice is lost forever.

Doctor Who Companion Comparisons!

December 15, 2008

So, the more I thought about this post (S4 SPOILERS!), the more I thought we needed to take a good look at the companions and their endings so far.

Spoilers for basically everything of importance seasons 1 through 4, after the cut.

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